My favorite Christmas song, and one of my favorite songs in general, is Bing Crosby's rendition of "I'll Be Home for Christmas (If Only In My Dreams)" on his album Merry Christmas. It conjures up warm memories of cuddling up with a good book on the sofa at my mother's house, my family all around me, while the snow falls gently, quietly outside the window.
But, inevitably, every time I hear it there comes a moment when I reflect on the character from whose point of the view it's sung. He's a young, American soldier thousands of miles from home in Europe during World War II, and he's intimately familiar with the dark, haunting fear that me might never again make it home for Christmas, save in his dreams.
Joyeux Noël serves up a heady brew made from precisely this poignant mix of gladness and grief. At the very moments when we've most given ourselves over to its heart-warming story of the flame of human goodness flaring to life even in the fetid, miserable trenches of World War I, it jerks us back to reality with a frisson of almost unbearable sadness.
The film is set on Christmas Eve, 1914. The soldiers of three nations (France, Germany, and Scotland) stare at each other across No Man's Land from the dubious safety of their respective trenches. Celebrating with extra whiskey rations, Scottish bagpipers play "I'm Dreaming of Home." As they fall silent the voice of a famous German tenor (Benno Fürmann) fills the air. Before too long the bagpipes are accompanying him in "Silent Night."
Shortly after that a truce is called and the soldiers of all three sides are spilling over the trenches. They trade Christmas rations of chocolate and wine, share pictures of wives and girlfriends, and celebrate Mass together, led by a Scottish chaplain (Gary Lewis).