Sunday, December 18, 2005

Gordon, Audebert, Horstmayer, and Sprink discuss an unprecedented truce because of Christmas.

I first noticed the poster of the movie, Merry Christmas (Joyeux Noël), last month on the way to watch Flight Plan and what I thought to be an unusual holiday greeting from a mall showing three soldiers marching side-by-side turned out to be a movie that piqued my curiosity. I resolved to watch this on my own if I can't find others to watch it with me. I finally got the chance to catch it earlier tonight. It's a French film with subtitles all throughout the movie except when the Scots who talk in english are shown. It starts out slowly but immediately lays down the groundwork for the audience to know that war has been declared in three countries: Scotland, France, and Germany. The year was 1914 and those who received the news had different reactions to the news. Some of them were happy that at last something exciting has come to break the monotony of life in a small village but for the others, fear and worry were written all over their faces.

Fast forward to December, the bitter cold of winter hasn't slowed down the fighting as the German army has already occupied parts of France. The battlefield is located in the countryside where the French, German, and Scottish army has built their trenches within yards of each other. Leading the French army is Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet), a young husband worrying about the status of his pregnant bedridden wife behind enemy lines, he left their home during the last month of her pregnancy and he was anxious about news regarding her welfare and their child. He's also a sympathetic man and a sensitive artist who took down to sketching everything that interests him in his little notebook. On the other side the Germans were led by Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl), a Jewish officer concerned more about their taking over the land than anything else and the Scots were led by Gordon (Alex Ferns), who sympathetizes more with the morale of his men than what his supreriors order them to do. Other characters that weigh in on the story include Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann) and his lover, Anna Sörensen (Diane Krüger), who are both famous German opera singers. Nikolaus was enlisted in the army and although he wanted to do his part in the war as his contribution to the German Crown he was belittled and, as much as possible, pushed to the rear by his commanding officer who prefers anybody but artists to be soldiers. Then there's Ponchel (Dany Boon), a former barber and Audebert's confidant who sets his alarm clock to 10 am everyday so he wouldn't forget his scheduled tea time with his mother even after the war, and on the Scot's side there's Palmer (Gary Lewis), an Anglican priest turned stretcher-bearer who'd rather spend time with the army on the front rather than with his parish, and Jonathan (Steven Robertson), Palmer's former church-aide who mourned the death of his brother.

The story was based on a true incident that happened during that time in the first World War, an unprecedented truce that happened on Christmas Eve. It all started when Sprink was recalled from the battlefield upon the request of Sörensen to perform before the German Emperor (Kaiser) Wilhelm II. Sprink was reluctant to leave the army and thought it selfish that he should enjoy good food and warm surroundings while his companions suffer the cold on the eve of the most important day of the year. He informed Anna about his plans to go back to the front to also perform for the army but she wouldn't let him out of her sight and asked that she also go with him. His presence back at the front alarmed Horstmayer but gave in after some prodding. The Scots at the time were also enjoying a meal and were having a good time listening to bagpipe music played by Palmer, while a spy was dispatched by Audebert to crawl in "no man's land" towards the German side to sabotage their machine guns. When Sprink stood above the trench and started singing "Silent Night," the Scots were silenced and listened to the melody. Although they couldn't understand the words, the music was all too familiar to them. When it was finished Palmer volunteered a few notes of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" on his bagpipes on their side of the trenches. This was a pleasant surprise for Sprink, he started singing along the music, took one of the Christmas trees lining their trench and boldly walked towards the middle of "no man's land." Horstmayer was incensed and demanded that Sprink return to their side but he was also caught by surprise when he heard clapping on the side of the Scots who were now sitting on top of their trenches minus their weapons. Gordon was the first to approach after a tense filled silence, then Horstmayer. They were already discussing for a short period before Audebert thought it wise to approach and see what it was the two sides were talking about. What was initially proposed was a temporary ceasefire between them all for the sake of the holiday season. That started the ball rolling and soon their men from all three sides climbed out of their trenches holding wine, chocolates and whatever they have that they could offer to the other side as a sort of peace offering. Soon enough, they were all hearing mass officiated by Palmer. But even in the middle of this peaceful scene, Jonathan was mourning over the dead body of his brother trapped blinded by grief and trapped behind his anger towards the Germans. But what they all thought to be a shortlived ceasefire extended the next morning when they were all unwilling to fire the first shot. In the middle of the silence and haze, Jonathan was found trying to dig a grave for his brother. This broke Gordon's heart and he approached Horstmayer and asked for another round of talks. Audebert joined them over coffee provided by Ponchet and they all agreed to a truce while they all sorted out the bodies scattered in the middle of the field and give them a decent burial. But it didn't stop there, soon they were alternately playing soccer with a makeshift ball, exchanging stories and addresses, and entertaining each other with tricks. Horstmayer even went out of his way a few days later to inform both the Scots and French army that their side was bombing their trenches a short while later and offered them sanctuary on their side. Gordon offered the same after realizing that their side would also retaliate. They all went their separate ways after this and to avoid their being separated by the army officers Sprink and Sörensen voluntarily offered themselves as prisoners of the French army (Sprink was ordered arrested by his superiors for deserting the party without permission). To say that their superiors weren't happy with the truce was an understatement when they found out about it. The three commanding officers were heavily reprimanded, the troops were dissolved and a new rule was put into place to prevent another truce from ever happening again.

I can't even begin to tell you how touching this movie is except maybe relate to you that when lights were turned on in the cinema at the end of the film and the credits were rolling, nobody, as in nobody was moving in their chairs. Nobody was willing to stand up lest the solemnity of it all would be disturbed. It's really that good and I really encourage you to watch it in the big screen while it's still showing.

* Related article: Remembering a Victory For Human Kindness: WWI's Puzzling, Poignant Christmas Truce
** If you're searching for pictures from the film, browse through the New Zealand Cinema Guide, and the french site, AlloCiné.
*** Here are also some photos taken from the German premiere
**** Check out also the review in Hollywood Jesus for more insightful reactions to this great movie..

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