"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." -- E.M. Forster
A British writer most famous for novels such as Howards End and A Passage to India, E.M. Forster penned those words in a 1938 political essay on the eve of the Second World War. Twenty-five years earlier, he'd spent the First World War with the Red Cross in Egypt, a post that undoubtedly encouraged him to see combatants as individuals rather than as representatives of their nations.
Forster's assertion probably has even less currency now than it did then, but it describes the predicament of the Great War soldiers depicted in Joyeux Noel, a trilingual French film nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year.
Written and directed by Christian Carion, Joyeux Noel is a fictionalization of one of the most famous moments in the history of combat, the night of Christmas Eve 1914 when a group of German, French, and Scottish troops laid down their arms.
Carion makes the story a microcosm by focusing on a handful of soldiers. A Jewish lieutenant who leads the German troops on this particular frontline embodies the limitations of national identity. Though he's charged with killing the French troops within earshot, he is in fact married to a French woman.
This lieutenant doesn't care about Christmas, but he can't help being moved when one of his privates -- a celebrated opera singer before the war -- sings "Silent Night" for his fellow troops. Meanwhile, across the battlefield, the Scottish troops are having their own celebration as a middle-aged stretcher carrier (a priest who's volunteered to accompany boys from his local parish into battle) plays the bagpipes.
With sounds wafting back and forth across a frozen no-man's-land littered with corpses, a duet gradually emerges between the German tenor and the Scottish bagpiper. As the spirit takes hold, men begin popping their heads out of the trenches, with the French lieutenant emerging to co-sign a holiday truce with a champagne toast.
It's a sentimental moment but one at least rooted in a real event, as frightened, tired soldiers who have been pitted against one another tentatively let their guards down, eventually sharing a Christmas mass and allowing each other to bury their dead.
This magical moment occurs about midway through the film, with the rest of the time devoted to build-up and aftermath. We see these soldiers encouraged to greet combat with a combination of excitement and hatred, and then we see them punished for fraternizing with their "enemies," as the real-life soldiers were. The parish priest who performed the impromptu mass for troops on both sides of the battle is castigated by his bishop, who relieves him of duty and then delivers a sermon that both denies the humanity and godliness of the enemy and demands that British troops kill their German counterparts so that such killing will never be necessary again. This was, after all, the "war to end all wars." We all know how that turned out.
But in the fleeting moments when these men laid down their rifles and came together, they discover not just a shared humanity and shared religion but a shared experience of war. They identify with each other more than the commanders who send them to battle or the countrymen who support the war from the relative safety of their homes. And so they commit what is surely treason in order to help each other out.
Joyeux Noel isn't a great war movie (anti- or otherwise), but it is a good story well told. It's modest, sincere, and ultimately satisfying.