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Old 17-12-05, 08:34 PM
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The truce is stranger as fiction


A scene from Joyeux Noel.
Photo: Supplied

The story of the Christmas truce of 1914 suits the sensibilities of today, writes Tim Hunter.

JOYEUX NOEL, A NEW FILM, directed by Christian Carion, is about the unofficial 1914 Christmas truce in the trenches of the Western Front. It was the first Christmas of the "war to end all wars", and many assumed - or hoped - it would be the last.

The film is a co-production between France, Germany, Britain, Belgium and Romania, and tells its story through characters on both sides of no-man's land; German, British and French. While the characters are fictional, their stories are based on anecdotes, letters and diary extracts from the Great War - stories that haven't necessarily been lost, but haven't seen the light of day for some time.

The film is told with a very 21st-century sensibility, obviously, to appeal to a contemporary audience. It's almost a case of all the countries involved sitting down together, holding hands, saying sorry, and singing Kum Ba Ya. Which isn't a bad thing, but it does beg the question: is this revival or revisionism? Redressing history or rewriting it?

Let's get the essentials out of the way first. There has been, over 90 years, a fair amount of speculation and embroidery of these stories, to the point where there's an air of urban myth surrounding the Christmas truce. But it did happen, it existed, and the stories remain.

Most place the origin of the truce in Flanders, and suggest it was German troops who initiated the ceasefire and fraternisation between soldiers. But there are variations and the true origins are shrouded in myth and mystery. Recently, there's been a rash of books, articles and websites about the truce, documenting and validating these stories, and indicating that it was a common event across the length of the front.

It was a book that inspired Joyeux Noel's writer and director Carion to make the film. He was born in the north of France, near the front that had been under German occupation, and the memory of the Great War was omnipresent, whether because of the military shells still buried in the fields, or cemeteries full of young men of all nationalities.

In the early 1990s, Carion came across a book, Battles of Flanders and Artois 1914-1918, by Yves Buffetaut, and read about the Christmas truce.

"I rang the writer, and said, 'I don't believe it.' He said, 'I can understand, you're not the only one.' I met him, and asked to see the original papers, the proof. So I went to Berlin, to Paris, and to London; it took me two years on and off, and I discovered it was true."

Carion was so moved that he decided back then to make a film and share his feelings about this historical event.

But is the film historically accurate? Associate Professor Judith Keene, from the University of Sydney's history department, doesn't think that whether it's true or false is the point.

"One just reshuffles the information to make the larger picture that fits.

"Having said that, there were incidents of cofraternisation across the trenches: Christmas 1914, of course, another at Easter 1915, and a smaller example of a Christmas truce in 1915 as well. It is the latter, some of the books suggest, at which the footy match took place.

"After that, because the higher command on all sides was extremely uneasy about cofraternisation, there were always shellings on each side at Christmas Eve and Christmas Day."

Such incidents weren't confined to the Western Front.

There was fraternisation on the Eastern Front with the Bolshevik Revolution and the withdrawal of Russian troops from the war, Professor Keene said.

"It's an overpoweringly moving story," said associate Professor Brian McFarlane, of the Monash University English department. "The Christmas truce is one of the defining moments of 20th-century history, and Joyeux Noel seems to get the facts right.

"They did sing Silent Night, and there was a soccer match."

However, for Professor McFarlane, the inclusion of a Danish soprano, Anna Sorensen (played by Diane Kruger) singing - or at least lip-synching - in the trenches alongside her lover, German tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann) defied every sense of credibility. Kruger, a former fashion model, also starred as Helen in Wolfgang Petersen's Troy.

"I would rather have had a straight retelling of the story. We don't need it to be repackaged with this diva. She looks like the 21st century, and when realism is what most of this film is about, having her there certainly detracts from its message", Professor McFarlane said.

Carion is up-front about the fictionalising of the story. All the events happened, but in different parts of the 700-kilometre front. It was easier for him, as a filmmaker to put them all together.

"I don't make documentaries, I make fiction. I wanted to put in the one place all the elements I wanted to talk about. I based most of the characters on real soldiers.

"If you're curious about the events, there are some books written by historians. The movie opens a way so that if you are very intrigued by it, you can find more about it."

Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion (1937), while it did not mention the Christmas truce, was about fraternisation between a German aristocrat and French POWs during World War I. The film was severely edited, but deemed highly subversive during World War II, and banned in some European countries. In the 1950s, Renoir re-edited the film, making it truer to his original idea. Carion found the film hugely inspiring.

Joyeux Noel shows the idealism of young men who rushed to fight for their countries, and how quickly it disappeared. At the beginning, two Scottish brothers join up, but one is killed days before Christmas and his body left in no-man's land. The surviving brother is so disillusioned, he cannot find it in his heart to join in the Christmas fraternisation.

This isn't an unfamiliar thread in the war stories told today. The recent documentary Gallipoli, directed by Tolga Ornek, tells its story through letters and extracts from soldiers, Turkish, British and Anzac. Their stories are not romanticised. Sentimental, perhaps, but the film is not romantic, and certainly does not glorify war.

"There were moments of sentimentality, but it didn't dishonour the memory of the events", Professor McFarlane says. "It demonstrated the possibility of what might go right between nations, and that the people in power couldn't cope with that.

"The 'de-monsterising' of the Germans is important to the story. The whole point of it showed that beyond what the men at the top wanted, and that was for the war to continue, the potential of human co-operation was there."

While Joyeux Noel may be sentimental, Carion defends his version of the story. "It's not a documentary, it's an opinion.

"The way it's edited, it's a point of view of the Christmas truce. I discovered how much the headquarters of that time, the French, German and British, did their best for us to never know this happened.

"I'm so moved by this story; I put my heart into this movie. I'm a pacifist, I believe in human beings. It's very fashionable to be cynical, to think it's too naive to show people shaking hands. I'm naive, and I'm proud to be."

Joyeux Noel and Gallipoli are also both co-productions between nations that were once at war. Today, they're getting together to tell the stories, almost in a cathartic blurt of honesty after so many years of "don't mention the war". Why? Are we, after 90 years, finally ready to say sorry? Is it time for us to see Germans and Turks as humans, and not as the monsters the Allied forces were led to believe they were?

It seems so, as the trend is apparent in other recent films as well. German film Rosenstrasse (2003), set in World War II, was about an aristocratic German and her interred German-Jewish husband. It showed the human side to Nazi Germany, and that not all Germans were Nazis, or indeed monsters. Downfall (2004), the film about Hitler's last days in his bunker, also showed the human side of his officers and their families. Gallipoli depicted Turkish officers and soldiers as men with families and lives and hopes and dreams - just like the British or the Anzacs.

Paradise Now, a contemporary story about Palestinian suicide bombers, again gives us a better understanding of the "enemy".In a time of paranoia about terrorism with all the associated prejudices, such films are reminders of humanity, inhumanity, and everything in between.

Professor Keene said the Christmas truce happened when it did not only because of the enormous losses in the war's first few months, more than at any other time during the war, but also because of the human element, the soldiers themselves. "German reservists had been sent to the front and were from Bavaria and the south-west, not the Prussians who later replaced them.

"They were older than the young recruits, and much less gung-ho, having families and lives at home that they wished to return to. The impulse for the truces always came from the German side."

The Age film critic Jim Schembri believes co-productions such as Joyeux Noel and Gallipoli are a great idea, and very important.

"It's not a new idea. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) was a co-production between Japan and the United States," he said. When you think about it, they actually went to a lot of trouble back in the late '60s to show both sides of the war equally."

But it was at home, while making Joyeux Noel, that Carion encountered most resistance. While the French government gave him its blessing, when it came to shooting at a military-controlled location, it was a different story.

"The French military general said to me, 'You will make this movie without me and our military area. I will not be a part of a move about rebellion.' I couldn't believe it, and that's why I was obliged to leave my own country to shoot it in Romania." It was not an isolated incident, Carion said. Stanley Kubrick's 1957 anti-war film Paths of Glory, about mutiny by French troops during World War I, was banned in France until after General de Gaulle's death in 1970.

Joyeux Noel is certainly striking the right chords, due in part to its revisionist nature.

The United Nations is screening the film as part of its 60th anniversary celebrations, and it is France's official entry for next year's Academy Awards.

"I believe the Christmas truce is a story that belongs in the 20th century mythology, and will be talked about years from now," says Professor McFarlane. "It's also an important story to keep retelling."

Only a few weeks ago, the last surviving Scottish soldier involved in the truce died. Making Joyeux Noel was an opportunity for Carion to share his feelings, and to make a monument to the soldiers.

"Yes, it happened, and let's not forget it, because I really believe the soldiers gave a lesson of humanity for us all."

December 17, 2005
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