War sucks. There’s no two ways about it. Doesn’t matter the time of year or who is involved in the conflict: war fucking sucks. All too often, the abstracts are argued: who has done what, who is right, who is wrong. That’s often forgotten are the soldiers and civilians that have to live the reality of the war, and the hardships that someone who is not actively involved in the politics of the war endures in the name of winning it. Das Boot is the first film I remember seeing that snapped this into perspective. Joyeux Noel did it as well, in a way that moved me to tears at several points. What the latter managed to accomplish in its fictional account of the setting aside of differences at Christmastime was comparison of the silent strength of its women. Though we only really get to interact with Diane Kruger’s Anna, we witness the effects of the female influence on its male counterparts in a character study that sees women as the keepers of humanity while high-ranking military men actively seek to punish this same sense.
|For a film without many women, it sure says a lot about the feminine influence.
Let’s start with Kruger’s Anna, who actively campaigns to be close to her fiance, Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann). Anna is the one that orchestrates the concert for Kaiser Wilhelm, which allows her a much-needed visit to Sprink. When he first sees her, he does not wish to give her lice, which reflects not only the reality of war in a trench, but also the feelings of being unclean and unworthy of his spouse; Anna, however, is unafraid of this, choosing sex with him over aesthetics. The damage to Sprink is far-reaching beyond this point: he’s smoking, he’s jaded, and he has trouble singing. During their private concert, though, Anna moves Sprink so that he is facing her, making her the focal point for him that allows him to continue to sing. And sing he does; quite well, in fact. With his confidence restored, Sprink travels with Anna to the trenches in order to perform the morale-boosting recital of Christmas songs for the weary troops. It is this singing that catalyzes the main event of the film: the ceasefire between the French, German and Scottish soldiers in order to enjoy Christmas as a group of men in unappealing circumstances rather than military men out to kill each other.
|I love how she is what gets him through his anxious performance.
While these events are in motion thanks to Anna, we are presented with other characters that draw the will to continue from the women in their lives. Audebert (Guillame Canet, who broke my heart in this film) uses the picture of his pregnant wife as a way to cope during his time in the trenches, wishing to be with her and their unborn child rather than fighting in a war he does not support. Ponchel keeps an alarm clock to remind him of his daily tea ritual with his mother, an act that helps him remember life pre-war (and therefore helps keep his sanity in the trenches). Scottish Jonathan copes with the grief of losing his brother William by writing letters to their mother, writing of William’s fictional accomplishments as though he were still alive. In this respect, though they are not around, the women are necessary to maintain the movement through their daily motions in a life that can only be categorized as hellish at best: trapped in a trench, afraid to move about for fear of getting shot, wondering how long they can last before the opposing forces close in. These women provide focus in a life they did not want. When the men of various languages are searching for ways to connect to one another, one of the ways in which they do so is the sharing of photographs of their female loved ones. That the women are the comforting thought of what awaits them back home, as well as the ice breaker for creating a friendship that helps these men get through a terrifying ordeal, transforms them into a spring of fortitude and friendship.
While the female presence – even just mentally – provides the men with comfort and the strength to carry on and retain their humanity in desperate conditions, the male military officials are the ones that sweep in with cold, calculated punishment for these actions. The ceasefire in and of itself is remarkable, even if fictional in this film: it demonstrates compassion and a willingness to talk over issues, to see the “enemy” as a human being – something that the political powers are not willing to do. When news of the ceasefire reaches the officials, punishment is swift and crushing. Audebert is sent to Verdun by his father. Horstmayer and his men are sent to the Eastern Front, with military honors insulted and a harmonica crushed to boot. Father Palmer is dismissed, and hangs up his cross after hearing an “educational” sermon urging the supposedly errant Scottish soldiers to kill every man, woman and child that happens to be German. These men are not going on to happy fates, yet no one expresses regret that they had those moments to be human in the trenches. They got a chance to have a few moments of normalcy in the midst of their hellish experience, and that’s stayed with them, as evidenced in the way the German soldiers begin to hum the tune the Scots taught them during their time as men in no man’s land. They may be punished, and they may be off to more hardship, but they have memories of a time when they could just be human.
|This wouldn’t have happened without Anna.
Sometimes, brute force is not the answer. Whether as an anchor or an element of active change, the women of Joyeux Noel worked to help keep the men from becoming mindless killing machines. Were these men punished for assuming a method of communication that is often deemed “feminine” by many standards? Yes. But they also revealed how complex and beautiful they were underneath the uniforms and battle codes. “It takes a woman to remind us that despite the war, it is Christmas,” Kaiser Wilhelm tells Anna at the beginning of the film. Anna’s actions paved the way for my favorite interaction of the film, between Horstmayer and Audebert: an offer to deliver a letter from a worried husband to his expectant wife, with the assurance of, “One letter won’t win the war.” As this film reminds us, one letter will not win the war, but one letter will remind us what it means to help another human being.