This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
World War One. How’d that start, eh? While Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s offing at the hands of the excellently named quasi-official Serbian Secret Service The Black Hand might have been the detonator for a particularly nasty powderkeg full of decades of mistrust, sniping and general hatred between four waxing and waning empires, he wasn’t much more than a convenient excuse. If the reasons behind the war are so poorly understood today with the benefit of hindsight, textbooks and a secondary school education that, to my recollection does its best Basil Fawlty impersonation on the subject (‘Don’t mention the war!’), how did the guys who actually fought it feel?
While festival favourite Merry Christmas, or Joyeux Noel, isn’t going to answer this question it does look at one of the more remarkable events of that meatgrinder of a war, the 1914 Ceasefire along the trenches of occupied Frenchland, or whatever it was called in them thar days. With a Scottish battalion commanded by Gordon (Alex Ferns) and Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet)’s French troops checking the advance of Lieutenant Horstmayer (Daniel Br?hl)’s German contingent.
Major offensives tend not to happen on religious holidays, especially if all of the combatants involved share the same holidays. Thus Christmas of 1914 might not have been too notable, were it not for a surprisingly large number of frontline troops ignoring the wishes of their superior officers bravely fighting from parties miles away from those inconvenient bullets and things. Inspired by an ex-Tenor German soldier Nikolaus Sprink (Benno F?rmann), returning to the trenches from aforementioned top brass party with his operatic partner Anna S?rensen (Diane Kruger) decides to host a singalong in the German trenches. Never ones to be outdone, the Scots breakout the bagpipes and respond in kind. Not long afterwards, everyone’s singing together, shaking hands and generally not killing each other.
Priest turned stretcherbearer Palmer (Gary Lewis) gives his most important mass in no man’s land and for a short while at least the basic tenets of Christianity (which, despite the best obfusticatorial efforts of the Church really reduces to ”don’t be a knob”) are adhered to.
None of which pleases the Brass, who see months of work indoctrinating hatred of the going down the tubes, hence conflict. In truth, the actual plot strands of Merry Christmas aren’t it’s strongest points. There’s no races against time to steal Nazi gold, and indeed no Nazis.
What you do get is a bunch of fantastic character acting performances and small, sad glimpses of lives ruined and tears shed. Horstmeyer’s story of holidaying wife his French wife at Audebert’s home town and subsequent wishes to meet there presents a touching microcosm of the damage done to Europe, and the German’s revelation that he’s Jewish gives another interesting slant to the tale, given the events of World War Two: War Harder. Br?hl first came to our attention as the fresh faced lad of Goodbye, Lenin! and he’s matured into a fine actor indeed. The French contingent (including Lucas Belvaux of the ambitious Trilogy project) may not make quite the same impact yet can’t really be faulted.
The Scottish contingent plays a blinder. Gary Lewis has been knocking out exemplary turns for decades, including the wonderful, deeply black comedy of Orphans, Gangs of New York and Billy Elliot. The tortures his character faces as his faith is tested not by his fellow man but his church superiors is palpable, albeit waved in our face in the final reel with a lack of subtlety uncharacteristic of the rest of the film. Plaudits must also go to Alex Ferns, who follows the vastly underappreciated and under attended Man Dancin’s superb performance with another great turn. We still live in hope that he’ll be allowed to escape the stigma of the strong, memorable Eastenders character of a few years ago and be allowed more opportunities to impress. He certainly deserves it.
I don’t really have a bad word to say about Merry Christmas. It’s a tone perfect testament to human spirit, goodwill amongst men and peaceful coexistence, at least until it’s subverted by politicians with axes to grind. War may occasionally be justifiable, but it’s never honourable or pretty or the manifestation of humanities strongest aspects. What the Truce shows, and that this film neatly encapsulates, is that even in the most trying of situations the positive side of humanity can shine through. That’s what life is about, and that’s what great cinema reminds us of. Perhaps there’s hope for the species yet.