Yesterday, I re-posted an entry from last year about National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, a movie that I’ve always enjoyed and now appreciate even more because of what I perceive to be its critique of American civil religion.
In stark contrast to Christmas Vacation, another movie that I first watched a few years ago shows the haunting beauty of what Christmas is really about: Joyeux Noel. A conglomeration of various true stories from the “Christmas Truce” during WWI, Joyeux Noel exposes the insanity of killing in war, the gap between those who declare war and those who fight it, and the unborn potential in humanity to be instruments of peace. Even more, its a well-written movie, not a naive simplification of choosing not to fight.
At various points of the movie, the viewer is shown how each side viewed the war; the same rhetoric of doing God’s will for king and country is repeated by the Germans, French, and British. We see how the Germans are cast into one mold as a whole as godless heathens, meanwhile they wear on their belts “God is with us.” The “enemy” doesn’t have a face, but must simply be killed, wiped from the face of the earth. Germans, always portrayed as the black and white enemy, in this movie are simply human.
The French (about the Germans): “Child, upon these maps do heed This black stain to be effaced Omitting it, you would proceed Yet better it in red to trace Later, whatever may come to pass Promise there to go you must To fetch the children of Alsace Reaching out their arms to us May in our fondest France Hope’s green saplings to branch And in you, dear child, flower Grow, grow, France awaits its hour.”
British (about the Germans): “To rid the map of every trace Of Germany and of the Hun We must exterminate that race We must not leave a single one Heed not their children’s cries Best slay all now, the women, too Or else someday again they’ll rise Which if they’re dead, they cannot do”
Germans: “We have one and only enemy Who digs the grave of Germany Its heart replete with hatred, gall and envy We have one and only enemy The villain raises its murderous hand Its name, you know, is England.”
The movie purposely parallels the different sides and thus highlights the arbitrary nature of war.
On the ground level, the movie shows the personal side of war, the stories of soldiers torn from loved ones. When the Scottish, French, and German troops decide to call a truce on Christmas, they quickly get to know one another and in the climactic moment of the film, the Scottish priest celebrates midnight mass with them. Though they all speak different languages, the mass is said in Latin. Its an incredible moment of unity in Christ as they respond in the same language. After celebrating Christmas, singing and laughing, playing–how can they go back to killing each other? “To die tomorrow is even more absurd than yesterday.”
There is much more that can be said about this film. There is no happily ever after; the viewer is left in tension as we see that the men have to face the consequences of a world that does not understand their actions. It’s a precise picture of Advent and Christmas, the peace that is possible, the “already but not yet,” a world perpetually not ready to receive the Prince of Peace.
The film also challenges me. As a pacifist, I have the tendency to demonize (internally) those who participate in and perpetuate wars. It’s easy to imagine them as monsters who willingly kill their fellow humans without pause. But films like this remind me that they are just people too, people that the military does its best to drive out any ounce of their hesitation or compassion, but people nonetheless. I have to believe that the people in the story of Joyeux Noel could be substituted for anyone in the world and have the same outcome. What scares me, though, is that through the use of technology and so much of the war machines made these days, a situation like the Christmas Truce is impossible because of how war is fought. People sitting behind computers killing people like its a video game scare me more than soldiers who have to see the people they’re being asked to kill face to face. And that is, ultimately, the underlying critique that Joyeux Noel offers, that war always has a face. All the computers and technology and modern warfare can make it possible to pretend people are just dots on a screen, but there are always faces and stories and real people whose lives are destroyed by war, both the soldiers fighting and the innocent.