Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Joyeux Noel (dir. Christian Carion, 2005)

It's Remembrance Day here in the UK. This is something that's somewhat hard to mark on a Classics blog, but I thought I'd say a few words about this film, which I'm rather fond of - and it looks forward to Christmas too.

Joyeux Noel is about the 1914 Christmas truce, in which troops from opposing sides famously went out into No Man's Land and played football. Well, famously in the UK anyway (it even gets a mention in an episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, in which Blackadder insists he was never offside) though apparently it's not so well known in other countries. It's a very sweet film - not without its flaws (I like Diane Kruger as an actress, but her character and her love interest both irritate me like nails on a blackboard) but generally very good and telling a story that isn't told much outside documentaries in a fresh way.

The film is made in three langauges - English, German and French - and follows three groups of soldiers - a group of Scots, principally their captain and chaplain, a French group, some of whom come from a place only an hour's walk away but the other side of the line (the most heart breaking story), principally their captain and his batman, and a German group, principally the annoying love interest and their captain.

What's my excuse for blogging about it? Well, during the first part of the truce, on the evening of Christmas Eve, the chaplain, who is Catholic, gives a Mass, and since this is pre-Vatican II, it's in Latin. The reason for the Latin is, obviously, because it's a Catholic Mass and not anything to do with ancient Rome (well, beyond the general history of the Roman Catholic Church) but the effect is interesting. Latin was a lingua franca across Europe for centuries (and still is in the Vatican) because it was a language that the biggest majority of people might be expected to be at least a little familiar with. Here, however, we have the opposite situation. Most of the soldiers, presumably, do not understand Latin, but they are united in their understanding, not of the language, but of the meaning of the service. Not the Christian meaning necessarily - it is at the end of the service that the German captain reveals that he is Jewish. The point of the service is for the soldiers to come together in a peaceful activity and take a moment to reflect (and listen to Diane Kruger lip-synching to an opera singer). After their enthusiastic but sometimes stilted attempts to communicate with each other (the captains all speak English and the German captain speaks all three languages, but the other soldiers frequently have trouble building a conversation) the chaplain's use of Latin brings them all together, not in mutual understanding of language, but in mutual incomprehension of language but understanding of meaning. As a use of Latin, it's fascinating (the film is based on documentary evidence but, as the Diane Kruger story demonstrates, is fictional) - loosely related to the use of Latin in magical spells, because it's usefully ancient and incomprehensible, but much more serious and packing a powerful emotional punch.


  1. thanks for reminding me of a lovely movie!

    I've been meaning to get this one on dvd... but have yet to choose the country I'll buy it in (for the sake of available subtitles) :p

  2. I think the World now needs a modern lingua franca as well :-)

    Why not decide on a neutral non-national language, taught worldwide, in all nations? As a native English speaker, I would prefer Esperanto

    Your readers may be interested in

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at


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