German soldiers and their enemies across the trenches negotiate their own makeshift, highly unconventional rules of warfare in the mushy-hearted yet engaging World War I drama Joyeux Noël, an Oscar nominee for this year's Best Foreign Language Film. Based on a true story, the film dramatizes a peculiar cease-fire on Christmas Eve 1914, when battle-tested Germans and their Scottish and French foes threw down arms and reluctantly agreed to celebrate the holidays together.
Of course, once soldiers from competing sides begin to relate to each other as human beings, it becomes infinitely harder for them to return to the standard rules of warfare. What begins as a brief Christmas Eve armistice begins to feel much more amorphous and open-ended once enemies become friends. Joyeux Noël's premise seems to lend itself either to pitch-black satire on the absurdity of war, or to earnest, sincere anti-war sermonizing. Joyeux Noël opts for the second approach, aiming squarely for audiences' bleeding hearts rather than their cold, analytical brains.
For example, in one memorable scene, a handsome German opera star turned reluctant soldier begins belting out epic versions of Christmas carols, accompanied solely by a high, lonesome bagpipe played by a Scottish stretcher-bearer/man of the cloth fighting for the opposing side. That scene captures in miniature the film's corny yet strangely affecting, old-fashioned indictment of war and sticky, unapologetic humanism. It takes a while for Joyeux Noël's stock characters to come into sharper focus, and the film is at its best during the long idyll in which warring factions discover just how much they have in common, from women to booze to, appropriately enough, the shared experience of battling each other in the trenches for months. But once that paradise of spontaneous pacifism ends and its participants are harshly punished, the film becomes heavy-handed and glum, more message than movie. Though a painless time-passer, Joyeux Noël ultimately contributes little to the venerable anti-war genre beyond its curious message that to some degree, war is hell because it prevents soldiers from making really neat friends and pen-pals from different counties.