‘Joyeux Noel’ offers a ‘dangerous’ Christmas memory from World War I
The Catholic Movie Club is a short weekly essay pulling out spiritual themes in our favorite films. You can discuss the movies with other readers in the comments on this page or in our Facebook group. Find past Catholic Movie Club selections here.
For the month of December, Catholic Movie Club will cover more recent—and less well-known—Christmas films, to give you some new additions to your holiday canon.
The 1914 Christmas Truce sounds like it could only happen in a movie. In the first year of World War I, soldiers along the front lines chose to declare ceasefires for the holiday season, leaving their trenches to exchange small gifts, drinks and conversation with their enemies. These truces were frowned upon by the military brass. The French general Victor d’Urbal wrote disapprovingly to a colleague: “[M]en who stay too long in the same sector become familiar with their neighbors opposite. This results in conversations and sometimes visits which often lead to unfortunate consequences.” In other words, it becomes difficult to conduct a war when you see the enemy as a human being.
Like the soldiers in the film, we will raise our voices on Christmas and sing about peace on earth—but we should also reflect on what we’ll do to make it a reality.
“Joyeux Noel” (2005), written and directed by the French filmmaker Christian Carion, offers a fictionalized account of one of these truces along the Western Front. The story centers on an embattled strip of French countryside, where Scots and French regiments trade fire with Germans from three separate trenches. We follow various characters through those trenches, including a Scottish priest (Gary Lewis) who enlisted as a chaplain to accompany the young men from his parish, and three young officers from the different armies (Daniel Brühl, Gauillaume Canet and Alex Ferns).
On Christmas Eve, one of the German soldiers—Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann), a celebrated tenor—is taken from the front to perform for the German Crown Prince. Disgusted by the lavish party, Sprink slips back to the front with his partner Anna (Diane Kruger) to perform for his fellow soldiers and offer them a small measure of comfort. An exchange of carols begins between the trenches, and soon the combatants agree on a one-night truce. As the men talk, play football and pray together, they discover surprising commonalities. When the sun comes up and the truce ends, everyone involved finds that it’s much harder to hate—and kill—people you have come to know. What began as a one-night truce becomes something bigger.
War only works if we can dehumanize those we are fighting. That dehumanization is baked into our national identities: We love freedom and peace, but they—the sinister Other—care only about power and conquest. It starts early: The film opens with a montage of children in England, France and Germany reciting speeches about the need to fight and exterminate their nations’ enemies. Later, a Catholic bishop delivers this homily to a group of fresh recruits: “You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil…. In truth I tell you: The Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God.” I’m sure that rhetoric sounds familiar: We still hear it today, justifying the murder of Israeli civilians and the bombing of Palestinian children, to name just two examples from our blood-soaked present.
But this isn’t the message of our faith. While Catholic teaching concedes that war may sometimes be justified, it also affirms the dignity and worth of every person. We remember that dignity when we encounter each other as people—more complicated, interesting and familiar than the rhetoric of war would have us believe. The truce in the film feels like a Christmas miracle, but it’s based on simple things: the shared language of a Christmas carol, or familiarity with the cat that weaves in and out of the trenches. They are all cold, they are all miserable, they all miss their families, they all long to be home. In the end, the men fighting and dying in the trenches have more in common with their “neighbors” across the barbed wire than they do with the men in their own countries who declare the wars and send them off to die.
For this reason, the story of “Joyeux Noel” is what the German Catholic priest and theologian Johann Baptist Metz called a “dangerous memory”: a memory that inspires resistance, that challenges the narrative of enmity and dehumanization, of the necessity of war. Accounts of the Christmas truce were suppressed by each nation’s governments, and future truces were aggressively discouraged. (They happened rarely on the remaining three Christmases of the war.)
But as we enter the Advent season and remember the history-shattering event of Christ’s birth, that “dangerous memory” is exactly what we need. Like the soldiers in the film, we will raise our voices on Christmas and sing about peace on earth—but we should also reflect on what we’ll do to make it a reality. Many will say that this is naive, or even dangerous (another common justification for war: This is the only thing that can keep us safe). But what better time than Christmas to hope for things that have never been? And what better way to celebrate the birth of Christ than by remembering that we, all of us, are beloved children of God?
“Joyeux Noel” is streaming for free with ads on Tubi and is available to rent or buy on AppleTV+ and Amazon Prime.