Is it too late to change my Oscar choice for Best Foreign Language Film? I still haven’t seen the winning South African film, “Tsotsi,” and I had been rooting for “Sophie Scholl,” a riveting story of German resistance during World War II. Last week I saw France’s entry, “Joyeux Noel,” and now I wish this film had won the coveted prize. Based on actual events that occurred during World War I, “Joyeux Noel” depicts an amazing but little publicized event that took place on Christmas 1914 following a bloody battle between the Allied Powers (France and Britain) and Germany.
Dug into their respective trenches on the western front, French, German, and Scottish troops hunker down on the eve of the holiday to enjoy their rations and dream of their loved ones at home. The first five months of the war have been more brutal than any of them could have imagined but they still hold out hope that the conflict will be over by spring. Among the German enlisted men is a famous opera singer, Nikolaus Sprink, whose girlfriend, a Danish soprano, has found a way to secret herself in for the night at great risk. When Sprink hears the Scottish soldiers playing Christmas carols on their bagpipes, he starts singing the German version of the song. Although forbidden to do so, he emerges from the trenches into “no man’s land,” still singing, armed with only a small Christmas tree in his hand. Soon the leaders of the three groups emerge as well and, without authorization from their superiors, agree to a temporary truce.
All of the troops then climb out of the trenches and start mingling with the men they were trying to slaughter the day before. With the dead bodies of their fallen comrades still laying between the trenches, the men share army-issue champagne and chocolate, look at pictures of each other’s families, and attend a group Christmas mass officiated by the Scottish chaplain at which the German tenor’s girlfriend sings a haunting rendition of “Ave Maria.” On Christmas Day the troops work together to bury their dead, followed by a friendly game of soccer. With knowledge of imminent air attacks from British and German planes, the soldiers move into each other’s trenches to stay out of harm’s way before returning to their pre-holiday positions.
If you think this sounds insanely idealistic, you’d be right—it is. But it really happened. At the beginning of the film we see German, French, and British schoolchildren reciting the catchy rhymes that cast their enemies as evil, inhuman savages who must be eliminated. Now, after facing some of the most deadly, vicious combat that 20th century technology could provide, some of the troops were losing faith in their generals who, from their safe perch, kept sending their compatriots to certain death. In some ways the soldiers could relate more to their also suffering peers in the enemy trenches than they could to their own superiors.
I think “Joyeux Noel” is one of the most powerful war films I’ve ever seen. Watching these men find the glimmers of humanity in their enemies and stage a defiant, if short-lived, act of peace, I wondered if such an approach could work in other conflicts. But the minute I tried to imagine the same event occurring thirty years later during World War II, my positive feelings about the soldiers’ courage took a nosedive. If a group of American or British soldiers called a friendly truce with a contingent of the Waffen-SS and started exchanging addresses and playing ball with the men dressed in full Nazi regalia, I think it would appear more treasonous than heroic. Especially if the Allied forces then sent the storm troopers on their merry way to continue their murderous campaign against the Jews and other persecuted groups in occupied Europe. While of course there were isolated cases of conscripted German soldiers who tried to help the victims of the Nazis, it is a much greater challenge for me to recognize the inherent humanity among card-carrying members of the Third Reich. And while the Germans may have also been our enemies during World War I, for some reason this group does not seem to be part of the same species as the bloodthirsty Nazi regime even though many future Nazis were among their ranks including one Corporal Adolf Hitler. In “Joyeux Noel,” however, the leader of the German troops (played by Daniel Bruhl from the film “Good-bye Lenin”) is a German Jew. What a difference a few decades would make.
I’d like to believe that my overall values are not so colored by personal experience or emotion but I know in many cases they are. I can feel for the German soldiers of World War I because I have no personal experience with “The Beastly Hun” and they did not specifically target my ancestors, but it's much more difficult to see past the Nazi uniforms of these soldiers’ sons and grandsons.
I’m not so naïve to think that the simplistic message of “Joyeux Noel” is one that can easily transfer to today’s troubled world. I don’t foresee any friendly soccer games between American troops and members of al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Nor do I see Israel and Hamas starting friendship clubs any time soon. But isn’t the first step to any lasting peace recognizing that people on both sides are fellow human beings and not vermin crawling the earth? We’ve all seen the atrocities that have occurred over the centuries when the opposite viewpoint is promoted.
Last week the young couple that rammed their car into a group of people on the sidewalk near my daughter’s school were arraigned. The accident killed Leah’s 24-year-old P.E. teacher and seriously injured eight students. I was shocked to learn that the male passenger was charged with second-degree murder but the female driver of the car was only charged with leaving the scene of a fatal crash and failing to provide assistance. If convicted, the 20-year-old driver can receive four years in jail. Her 19-year-old boyfriend can receive up to 15 years. The two acknowledge that they were having a heated argument just before the crash and apparently the authorities believe the woman’s claim that the passenger grabbed the steering wheel and caused the car to slam into the group. But doesn’t the woman bear some responsibility for the crash? Couldn’t she have pulled over or at least slowed down when she felt tensions rising dangerously in the car? I was surprised to feel these thoughts coming up. Was it revenge I wanted? I wonder how I’d feel if this was just a news story from another city. Would I have more compassion for this couple if I didn’t know the people who were hurt and killed? When Leah heard about the sentencing, her first thought was for the couple’s two-year-old child. She was devastated about the death of her teacher and sad about the other children who were hurt, but she couldn’t see how this couple going to jail for a long time would do any good. Wasn't it punishment enough that they'd have to live with the knowledge of what happened as a result of this tragic accident?
I talked about how there needs to be consequences for such reckless behavior and Leah agreed, but I was struck at how she was able to see the humanity in these two people. In my grief and anger over the senseless loss, I was not. I hear about these cases where the families of murder victims are able to forgive the people who committed such heinous crimes against their loved ones and I’m in awe about how such a thing is possible. How many of my beliefs go out the window as soon as I have an emotional connection to the victims? Is there a bloodthirsty vigilante living underneath my liberal exterior?
Not surprisingly, the troops involved in the 1914 Christmas Truce got into serious trouble when word got out and they were all transferred to different (and even more dangerous) parts of the front. Most did not survive the war but in 2004, 108-year-old Alfred Anderson told a British newspaper about the brief moment of peace amid the bloodshed. Anderson was 18 at the time and his unit was one of the first involved in trench warfare. He heard the words drifting across the frozen battlefield: “Stille Nacht, Hellige Nacht, Alles Schlaft, Einsam Wacht.” The lyrics were unfamiliar but the tune of “Silent Night” was unmistakable. After the last note a lone German infantryman appeared holding a small tree. “Merry Christmas! We not shoot, you not shoot!”
“All I'd heard for two months in the trenches was the hissing, cracking and whining of bullets in flight, machinegun fire, and distant German voices,” said Anderson, who died in November 2005. “But there was a dead silence that morning, right across the land as far as you could see. We shouted ‘Merry Christmas’ even though nobody felt merry. The silence ended early in the afternoon and the killing started again. It was a short peace in a terrible war.” Anticipating the 90th anniversary of that day, Anderson said that he would think about Christmas 1914 as he did every year. “And I'll think about all my friends who never made it home. But it's too sad to think too much about it. Far too sad,” he said, his head bowed and his eyes filled with tears.