The holiday-in-March theme is out of whack in the World War I tale “Joyeux Noel,” or “Merry Christmas,” which opens a couple of months too late for yuletide.
But the film’s depictions of the absurdity of war and the humanizing bond that comes with a simple hello and handshake among enemies are always in season.
Nominated for best foreign-language film at the Academy Awards, “Joyeux Noel” is an elegantly crafted drama that derives its eerie, ethereal mood as much from the sounds of war — and their absence — as the sights of combat.
In mining the strange but true stories of Christmas fraternization across enemy lines, writer-director Christian Carion (“The Girl From Paris”) beautifully captures a moment in time when the impersonal madness in the trenches ebbs amid a spirit of holiday cheer.
Carion, cinematographer Walther Vanden Ende and the production team present poetic images of the dazed and confused — French, Scottish and German soldiers who abruptly find themselves socializing, then wondering, how can they ever go back to killing one another after sharing drinks and songs and stories of their loved ones?
Early on, the film flits back and forth among the three sides to establish the key players, led by Diane Kruger as Anna Sorenson and Benno Furmann and Nikolaus Sprink, lovers and stars of the Berlin opera.
With Sprink sent to the front after war breaks out, Anna uses her fame to orchestrate a Christmas Eve reunion, arranging for the two to give a recital for the German crown prince.
Afterward, though, Sprink insists on returning to the trenches to sing for his comrades on a holy night when they need it most. The willful Anna comes along, the two arriving in the German trenches just as the Scots across the way begin to celebrate with bagpipes and song, led by Anglican priest Palmer (Gary Lewis).
Soon, the Scots and Germans are accompanying one another on “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and Sprink is marching into no man’s land, armed only with his beautiful tenor voice and one of the small Christmas trees the German high command has absurdly sent to the boys at the front.
After a hasty summit by the young French, German and Scottish leaders (Guillaume Canet, Daniel Bruhl and Alex Ferns, a Christmas truce is declared. Troops from all sides trade wine and chocolate, show off pictures of wives and children and engage in a soccer showdown.
When the time comes to settle back to war, however, the men have become too familiar with one another as new friends, and Carion takes the story into the surreal territory of such anti-war tales as the Bosnian film “No Man’s Land,” a past foreign-language Oscar winner.
Minimizing the battle footage, Carion centers on the stillness of the respite, the silences so complete they are unnerving amid the battle-torn wasteland on screen. The breathless beat that follows Anna’s aching rendition of “Ave Maria” during a joint Christmas mass is sublime.
Though it is early in the war, with millions more deaths to come, “Joyeux Noel” ends with a wistful, melancholy, perverse sense of hope that despite the best efforts of the generals to stoke the troops, the men in the trenches have had their blinders removed and now see the conflict for the sham it is.