Christian Carion, Countries: France/Germany/UK/Belgium/Romania, 2005, 116mins
Cast: Diane Kruger, Benno Furmann, Daniel Brühl
On 24th December 1914 something remarkable happened. It was Christmas Eve in the early months of the First World War and for a few short hours men, who had been instructed by their countries to hate their enemies as monsters, spontaneously downed weapons and joined together in the no-man's land between the lines to sing carols, exchange food and cigarettes and bury their dead. "Merry Christmas" ("Joyeux Noel) is an effective and touching dramatisation of this true story.
It is appropriately a pan European co-production in French, German and English, telling its story even handedly and sympathetically from all points of view with no villains, except possibly the brass hats, some of whom had a blue fit when they learned of the fraternisation, and a chilling cameo from Ian Richardson, as the English bishop who condemns the truce. The film starts with three children - one French, one Scottish, one German - mouthing in the schoolroom the propaganda fed to them by their "betters". "We must exterminate that race". Does that sound familiar? Characters are well established on both sides. There's the Scotsman (Gary Lewis), whose brother has been gunned down and left to die alone in no-man's land and his priest from back home, who will later on lead the Christmas truce in simple prayer. There's also the French officer (Guillaume Canet), who is desperately missing his young bride and the German opera singer (Furmann), all caught up in the hell of the trenches. Also involved on the German side are the young, uptight officer (Brühl), reluctantly won round to the truce - ironically in view of what is to happen to his people in his lifetime, if he survives, he is Jewish - and somewhat improbably Dianne Kruger as Furmann's opera singer girlfriend, who manages to get herself smuggled into the trenches for Christmas Eve, but who justifies her position in the story by enhancing the temporary truce with an aria or two.
It is a remarkable story, simply and effectively brought to life, with some gentle humour - there is a stray cat, whom both the French and Germans have been feeding and whom both claim as their own - and often very moving, as the men emerge at first tentatively from their trenches like animals from their dens and then warm to their supposed enemies as fellow men, sharing food, swapping stories, showing pictures of their families and even agreeing to meet after the war, if they survive. Particularly effective towards the end is the sequence where the officers on both sides order bombardment of the enemy trenches to fool their commanders, having first taken the precaution of inviting their friends/enemies into their own trenches to take cover.