Guest post by Jamie Darin Prenkert.
Nominated for the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Joyeux Noël depicts the fabled “Christmas truce” of December 1914, during which British, French, and German troops on the Western Front of World War I for a brief time laid down their arms and reportedly met in No Man’s Land to exchange gifts, sing songs, and even play a little soccer. The film is a fictionalized version of these events, told through the viewpoints of Lieutenant Gordon of the Royal Scots Fusiliers; Lieutenant Audebert, a son of a French general and member of the French 26th Infantry; Lieutenant Horstmayer, the multi-lingual, Jewish leader of the German 93rd Infantry; Father Palmer, a Scottish Anglican priest and stretcher-bearer; Nikolaus Sprink, a famed German tenor and conscripted private in the German infantry; and Anna Sørensen, an equally celebrated Danish opera performer and Sprink’s romantic partner. Each of these characters display varying degrees of ambivalence toward fighting and loyalty to their countries’ efforts.
After Sprink is drafted to the front lines, Sørensen uses her connections with the Kaiser to convince Sprink’s superiors to pull him from the front lines to give a Christmas recital for the German officers and the Crown Prince. She and Sprink eventually convince the powers that be to allow them also to return to the front to perform for the troops. As Sprink and Sørensen sing “Silent Night,” the Scottish soldiers (who had themselves been singing festive songs from home, accompanied by bagpipes) are enraptured and one of their pipers joins to accompany them. Sprink responds by grabbing one of the hundreds of miniature Christmas trees Berlin has sent to the front to “decorate” the German trenches and stepping over the ramparts and into the open to sing “Adeste Fidelis,” which inspires soldiers from all sides to emerge and meet in No Man’s Land, where their leaders agree to a cease-fire for the evening. The soldiers engage in gift exchanges, Father Palmer leads a Mass for the dead, soldiers from opposing sides trade stories of family and friends from home, and several play various games (including soccer).
Ultimately, though, the truce is short-lived. When word of the truce and the fraternization among the enemies spreads, leaders on all sides shame and rebuke the soldiers for their breach of wartime protocols. The killing resumes. Father Palmer is sent back to his parish, while the bishop preaches an anti-German sermon to the soldiers. Audebert, fresh from news of a newborn son making its way to him as a result of the truce, is sent to be berated by his father, the general. And Horstmayer’s troops are shipped to the Eastern Front through Germany, without any opportunity to see their families.
Sprink and Sørensen’s storyline was inspired by the real-life experience of German tenor Walter Kirchhoff, who accompanied German Crown Prince Wilhelm on a Christmastime visit to the front. Like Sprink’s singing, Kirchhoff’s impromptu concert entranced the French soldiers who were huddled just across the field. They applauded from the trenches until Kirchhoff performed an encore. Otherwise, the film generally portrays the sort of interactions that primary sources indicate occurred during the Christmas Truce, with the possible exception of the soccer games, for which there is less clear primary support.
Given the story of temporary armistice spurred by music, religion, family, and sport, Joyeux Noël is, on the one hand, an obvious choice for the Cultural Foundations of Peace Film Series. On the other hand, the ceasefire during the Christmas Truce was fleeting and the war resumed in full-force for nearly four years. Thus, it is worth considering whether and how the cultural forces that led the warring troops to lay down their arms could be leveraged to foster lasting peaceful relations, rather than momentary respite from conflict. What is the role of empathy in that? And is there a dark side to empathy for which we must account? Are there ways that all sorts of organizations can be structured to foster these cultural foundations for peace? These are issues that Fritz Breithaupt, Professor of Germanic Studies and Affiliate Professor in Cognitive Science, and I will explore in our post-showing discussion.
The screening of Joyeux Noël will take place on March 4 at 6:30 p.m. in the IU Moving Image Archive Screening Room in the Herman B Wells Library. The screening is free, but reservations are required and can be made here.
Joyeux Noël is part of the Cultural Foundations for Peace series, which is sponsored by the Department of Business Law and Ethics, the Institute for Korean Studies, and the IU Cinema.
Jamie Darin Prenkert is the Charles M. Hewitt Professor of Business Law in the Department of Business Law and Ethics at the Kelley School of Business and an Associate Vice Provost for Faculty and Academic Affairs on the Bloomington Campus. His research focuses on anti-discrimination law in the employment context and multinational business enterprises’ responsibility to respect human rights.