Christian Carion’s Film, Joyeux Noël: A Place of Memory
Winter 1914. WWI’s first major battles have stagnated in the trenches. In an icy field in the North of France, French, Scots, and Germans spy on each other until Christmas Eve when the nostalgic song of bagpipes escapes from the underground while the sound of a Berlin tenor’s Lied rises and spreads in the night. Soon the two melodies harmonize, and the soldiers from all sides emerge from the trenches and meet each other in No Man’s Land. Strategic enemies become war brothers.
French director, Christian Carion, captures this battlefield miracle in his 2005 film, Joyeux Noël, now a WWI classic. As the centennial approaches, WWI has made more recent, diversified appearances on the screen–Au revoir là-haut (The Great Swindle), Wonder Woman, The Light Between Oceans, (and soon Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero)–but Joyeux Noël remains the reference for appreciating and understanding the fraternal phenomenon of the 1914 Christmas Truce. In Carion’s film, scenes of fraternity overtake the less-joyous scenes of killing to the point that friendship among enemies appears almost normal; we forget the snow-covered, frozen corpses strewn about No Man’s Land and get lost in music, drink, and football. For the spectators, the return to battle on December 26th feels like a punch in the face, tunneling us back into the terrifying absurdity of this war. It’s no wonder the film was nominated “Best Foreign Language Film” for the 2006 Academy Awards and Golden Globes.
In Lyon, France, WWrite had the chance to chat briefly with Christian Carion about the place of his film during the last year of the WWI centennial. He said, “As for Joyeux Noël, it has become a classic end-of-year movie on all the TV channels. Schools show it and it is studied from a musical point of view, this hymn of the fraternized. The film and its success have constructed a place of memory where it is impossible to forget fraternizations. In short ... this film has fulfilled me…”
To learn more about Carion and his legendary film as a place of memory, WWrite has translated and adapted a 2006 interview with the director. It comes from Critikat, and was conducted by Audrey Jeamart.
With Joyeux Noël…(you) wanted to film the fighting and also to do justice to these incredible facts of momentary peace that do not appear in any book of history, and yet have existed. The trailer of the film describes a "A true story that history has been forgotten." What does this phrase mean to you?
Carion: All the acts of fraternization that are presented in the film are authentic: the football game, the mass, the collective burial. These are true stories. But these stories are not in textbooks. At the time, all this was very censored. Military officials and the governments of the time felt that it should not be known because it would have been a great disaster for them. All these facts were thus buried in the military archives. When I discovered these stories fourteen years ago, I was very surprised and moved. What happened that night fascinates me. I investigated to find out more and I discovered a lot of things, so I wanted to share this story and tell it.
However, you seem to avoid giving us a history lesson ...
Carion: I am not a historian, nor is the film a documentary. I relied on real facts, but I also gave myself liberties. For example, bringing together facts that took place in many different places. I invented characters so that the audience follows what is happening better. I told the story as I heard it, with my staging choices.
Your film is not a pure war movie, you work more on human relationships, emotions…
Carion: Indeed, there are no large, wide shots seen from above (as in many war films.) My staging principle was to film the men so that we are with them. I knew we had to shoot in tight shots, look for details. When fighting in a battle, one sees nothing, cannot see what is happening, and I wanted to take that view. This is how I wanted to show the battle from the beginning, to "set the scene." But what enchanted me most was what happened on the sidelines, the things that motivated every character, how they experienced these moments individually, and how they experienced what came after. The film takes place during the war of 1914, but it's not a film about the war of 1914. It's a film about a momentary bubble, something unthinkable, something that normally doesn’t occur during war.
The French, German and Scottish trenches are represented in the same way, none more important than another. You didn’t want us to take sides?
Carion: I wanted the spectator to circulate among all the trenches. I didn’t want spectators to choose sides and become attached to one country before the fraternization started. First, I had planned on doing it another way. In this version, we would have been in the French trench first, then those characters would have seen the Scottish and the Germans getting closer, and, at that point, they would have gotten out to see what was happening. But I found this idea too limited. I wanted everything to move right away at the beginning of the film. That's why I filmed the three children at the beginning. This gives a taste of what the viewer will encounter in the film. Out of a concern for representing truth, I also wanted to keep the characters speaking in their respective foreign languages.
On several occasions, the dialogue between the characters is implicit rather than explicit. Do you think that approach is more impactful for the viewer?
Carion: Exactly. What is frontal bores me. The kinds of conversations that take place in the film are like confessions, which are hard for anyone to make. To show this difficulty aesthetically, we must show the dialogue going back and forth almost casually, as if we are mining for nothing. It's hard to do, but it's fascinating. When directors prepare a film, we see old and new movies. We feed on the movies of others. In this film, I saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by John Ford. John Ford is my bedside filmmaker, I learned everything from him, and from Hitchcock. In Ford's films, there is everything I love: they are films about spaces and are deeply humanistic. John Ford loved people, and actors. In his films, he passes a multitude of things "casually." It would be stupid to say I’m John Ford, I'm also trying to do things the way he did them. I try to embrace his elegance and his ideals.
Which 1914-1918 films inspired you?
Carion: The two films I've worked on with my team are Wooden Crosses (1931) with Charles Vanel, and All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930). They were shot with real French WWI veterans, who agreed to return to the battlefield to make the film. In these films, you also find material from the 1914-1918 time period. You really hear the sound of a real incoming WWI shell, which cannot be found today. These films have an oral and visual realism which we used a lot in Joyeux Noël. All WWI films that were made after the Second World War, including Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, are re-enactment films with war materials that no longer existed. It was important for me to go back to the source and produce authentic images and sounds. I was also inspired by movies about the condition of the fighter and this was very important for me. The reference is for me The Thin Red Line by Terrence Malick. When you see this kind of great film, you know you have a lot more work to do as a director. Malick’s film is seen through point of view of nature, which regards men killing each other with a kind of disdain. It is absolutely magnificent. At the beginning of the Joyeux Noël, when Guillaume Canet looks at two beetles mating, it's my little nod to Malick. Beetles have nothing to do with 14-18. They mate because they live.
We find the theme of space and nature in your two films. Your films seem to reflect your attachment to the earth ...
Carion: I was born in the French northern countryside and my parents were farmers. It is a region of large spaces and landscapes. There are no mountains to block the view, everything is open. My childhood memories, I see them in scope. I cannot make movies about people who tell talk about their sex life in a cafe. This story of WWI French soldiers shaking hands on Christmas Eve is what haunts me instead. But I also made this film because I like to be in open spaces. I feel like I’m choking if I don’t have this space.
Music has a particularly important place in the film ...
Carion: The fraternization began on the German side because they began to celebrate Christmas noisily. They were singing familiar, universally-known songs, which everyone could understand. That's what made all the people from different sides come together. I loved the idea that music and singing could bring people together, even for a few hours. The film is a hymn to music. Philippe Rombi, the composer of the film, was involved very early in the scenario. I'm not a musician at all, and so I told him the scenes I envisioned from my heart. He listened to me, then went to the piano, and he immediately played me what I’ve called the "fraternized hymn." The music of the film is a mix of these compositions and familiar, universally-known songs, like Stille Nacht (Silent Night).
You presented the film to middle school students throughout France. Do you think that educating young people through images is particularly important?
They do not care about the context of war. What interests them is the fraternization between these fighters. The universality of the film is immediately obvious to them. Film screenings with young people are always very rich for me. And it's very important. We live more in a world of images than in a world of text. We learn to read texts and we also must learn to read images. From the moment we know how to understand images, we can become more aware of what they represent.
Christian Carion was born in a family of farmers in the North of France. Despite cultivating a passion for films since the age of 13, he first traveled a scientific path. After high school, he went to an engineering school affiliated with French Ministry of Agriculture, following family tradition.
Yet movies were never far from his mind. In 2001, Christian Carion directed his first feature film, Une hirondelle a fait le printemps (The Girl From Paris), which was an homage to his upbringing and tells the story of a brooding farmer, Michel Serrault, meeting a Parisian girl seeking the calm of the countryside. The movie was a hit with over 2,4 million French spectators.
The success allowed Carion to move on to the more ambitious project, Joyeux Noël (Merry Christmas), which was a movie he had been thinking about since 1993. Screened in Cannes for the film festival in 2005, this historic movie depicts the fraternizations of enemy soldiers on Christmas Eve during World War I. The movie, a huge public success was nominated numerous times for the French Césars and was nominated for the Oscars in the category Best Foreign Film.
Two years later, he filmed another historic movie; L'affaire Farewell (Farewell), starring Emir Kusturica and Guillaume Canet. It features a spy story set in Russia based on true events.
In 2014, on the roads of northern France, he shot, En mai, fais ce qu'il te plaît (Come What May). It is another historical piece about the exodus of millions of people in May 1940, when France was falling apart and the inhabitants of northern France were fleeing the German troops. Written using numerous recollections from the northern people, the movie depicts the quest of a German dissident looking for his son. The original music was composed by Enrico Morricone.