by Vic Thiessen
The French and Scottish armies face the Germans, with “no-man’s land”, littered with bodies, lying between them. This is warfare at its most horrific. But on Christmas Eve, something unthinkable happens. This is the premise of a new film called Merry Christmas (Joyeux Noel) which tells the true story of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the trenches of France in 1914. If you don’t know the story, you might not want to read further. Just go see the film, due to be released on December 14.
What was so special about Christmas Eve, 1914? The Germans started singing Christmas carols to the accompaniment of Scottish bagpipes. Soon the soldiers were climbing out of the trenches and exchanging chocolate and cigarettes and eventually even sharing a Christmas worship service together.
Merry Christmas tells a story I had heard before and always thought would make a great film. And Merry Christmas is indeed a great Christmas film, but, having seen it just before Remembrance Sunday, I think it is also the perfect Remembrance Day film. Why? Because it helps us to remember not only those who have died in war, but also to remember the insanity of war and the horrific irony that World War I was a war fought between Christians. Remembrance Sunday is the perfect day to remember the church’s role in war, especially in dehumanising the enemy so Christians on all sides can kill each other, for we can’t be allowed to see the human in the enemy lest we be unable to kill him.
It is in its handling of the church’s role in World War I that the film truly stands out, for it shows the very best that Christianity can offer as well as the very worst. Through the horrifying words of a priest, Merry Christmas exposes the church’s role in dehumanising (and demonising) the enemy so that it can instruct the soldiers to kill without hesitation. At the same time, through the actions of another priest, the church is seen as uniting the enemy soldiers into one humanity in a way that makes it impossible for soldiers to kill their enemies, because they have become human.
Merry Christmas is not a flawless film. It’s a little melodramatic and contrived and the character development is not as strong as one would like. And the lip-synching of the opera singers made me cringe. But it is very well-acted, well-directed, well-edited and beautifully shot. It is the kind of film that could easily have become overly sentimental. But it treads that line very carefully and, I think, perfectly. I believe Merry Christmas is destined to become a classic and deservedly so. The film is a joint effort of three countries (France, Germany, UK) and has a nice balance of the three languages, which only adds to the film’s authenticity.
Before seeing Merry Christmas, I was convinced I’d seen my favorite film of 2005 back in July when I watched Crash. It was my favorite film since Magnolia, which I first saw in 2000, and what were the odds that 2005 would have more than one film which could break into my all-time top 50? Crash has been described as a Magnolia-clone because, like Magnolia, it’s about hurting people in Los Angeles whose lives connect and intersect in various ways. Crash is a little more contrived than Magnolia (though the latter has raining toads!), the characters are not as well developed, and there is some obvious copying of Magnolia, but Crash is both darker and lighter than Magnolia and it deals with different themes (primarily racism), making it a very worthy film on its own. Crash is the best film about racism that I have ever seen. Watching it should be immediately followed by a long discussion on racism and on how most of us have racist attitudes of some kind. If you haven’t seen Crash yet, you should.
Both Merry Christmas and Crash are profoundly humanising films that challenge us to look past our preconceptions of others, whether enemy or neighbour. If you only see one film this Christmas season, make sure Merry Christmas is it.