Imagine picking up the morning paper and reading this headline: "U.S., Iraqi Soldiers Lay Down Weapons in Day-Long Ceasefire." You learn that this truce was not ordered from on high, but initiated by the soldiers themselves, who actually put down their guns and approached each other with gestures of peace. They put their mistrust aside and shared coffee, chocolates, and cigarettes, looked at family photos, and even played soccer, right there on the desert sand.
You can't believe what you're reading.
Nor could people believe it almost a century ago when such an event actually did occur in the midst of arguably the most hellacious combat in history: World War I. It was 1914 in German-occupied France. The invading army and the Allies were literally dug into trenches, sometimes just 20 feet apart. To raise your head above the sandbags was to risk having it blown off. The opposing soldiers could hear one another, and, if they dared, even look into each other's eyes. Separating the two trenches was a small patch of earth dubbed No Man's Land—littered with shells, shrapnel, and the corpses of the slain.
Such is the landscape in which Joyeux Noël (French for Merry Christmas) takes place. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, it's the true story of that Christmas cease-fire, when men on both sides really did lay down their weapons and fraternize with each other.
Several years ago, I was spellbound by Stanley Weintraub's Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce. It seems like the stuff of urban legend, but it really happened. It also seems like it can only be explained as "a God thing," and indeed, how else could something so extraordinary take place without divine intervention?
When putting together the story for Joyeux Noël, writer/director Christian Carion—who grew up in France near where the truce took place—said "the tricky part of writing the script was how to make the viewer believe that these incredible events were true." But after doing exhaustive research, Carion had himself a story—and now the world has been treated to a soul-stirring feature film.
In Joyeux Noël, we meet key characters on all sides of the story—a pair of Scottish brothers and their parish priest, who accompanies the boys to the front lines; the three field lieutenants for the Scottish, French and German battalions; and, interestingly, a German tenor and a Danish soprano who'd met and fallen in love through pre-war opera performances.
The soprano may have been a fictional addition for the film, but there really was a German tenor who played a vital role in the story. German emperor Kaiser William II had ordered thousands of Christmas trees sent to the front lines to boost the men's morale. On Christmas Eve, they placed the trees, with candles lit, in parapets atop the trenches, in clear sight of the enemy. And then—in the film and in the true story—the tenor, an enlisted man who'd been fighting alongside his comrades, began singing "Schtille Nacht" ("Silent Night"). The Allied troops obviously knew the tune, and soon, all sides joined in on the singing from their trenches, each in their own language. Soon, men were climbing out of their earthen dugouts, sans weapons, and toward one another—toward the enemy!—to join together in celebrating the birth of a Savior they all had in common, politics and the war be hanged.