'Joyeux Noel' Celebrates Brief Holiday Truce in WWI

It seems the wrong time of year to release a movie called "Merry Christmas." But the French film, Joyeux Noel, about a celebrated World War I Christmas truce, is nominated for a Foreign Film Oscar at Sunday's Academy Awards. Bob Mondello reviews the film.

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BOB MONDELLO: Before 1914, wars were fought mostly with troops lining up in formation and marching into battle. World War I, by contrast, was all about trenches and machine guns.

The French and the Brits in trenches on one side, the Germans in trenches that were sometimes as little as 30 feet away on the other side. No tanks yet, not much heavy artillery, so as the first winter of the war arrived, these huge armies just dig in within site of each other, within hearing of each other. And on Christmas Eve, the guns fall silent, and from the German trenches come sounds of the season.

(SOUNDBITE FROM JOYEAX NOEL)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG O COME ALL YE FAITHFUL IN GERMAN)

MONDELLO: A chaplain on the other side picks up his bagpipes.

END SOUNDBITE

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: Hearing the sudden burst not of gunfire, but of music, soldiers on both sides do something they really shouldn't. They cautiously stick their heads up out of the trenches to see what's happened.

When no one shoots, something happens that seems almost unbelievable in hindsight, the Christmas truce of 1914, an informal ceasefire initiated by exhausted, homesick soldiers at dozens of spots along the 500-mile long western front. It's a bit romanticized as depicted by French writer/director Christian Carion, but the story is basically true. It really happened pretty much this way.

(SOUNDBITE FROM JOYEAX NOEL)

Unidentified Man #1: Good evening, Germans. We're not English, we're Scottish.

END SOUNDBITE

MONDELLO: Ten million lives would be lost before World War I was over, but the film shows how for a few hours during this first Christmas of this first modern war, soldiers who had been shooting at each other for days came out of their trenches and swapped cigarettes and showed each other photos of loved ones, and even played soccer. The director makes a point of humanizing soldiers on all sides of the conflict, and when the Chaplain leads them all in a midnight mass, in Latin as it was then said all over the world, no man's land briefly becomes common ground.

(SOUNDBITE FROM JOYEAX NOEL)

Unidentified Man #2: (Latin spoken)

GROUP: (Latin spoken)

END SOUNDBITE

MONDELLO: You can't watch this film without thinking about modern wars and about how much easier it is to demonize a foe when language and customs are more at odds. The cross-cultural camaraderie depicted in JOYEAX NOEL feels almost fairytale-ish today, not because of the sentimental way the film has been crafted, but because humanity being so human in war time seems so clearly to belong to another time.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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