Joyeux Noel Parent Guide
A heartwarming Christmas movie unexpectedly rising from scenes of death and destruction.
Parent Movie Review
World War I, the “war to end all wars”, lasted for four years and resulted in approximately 20 million deaths. It seems impossible to imagine a heartwarming Christmas movie coming from this death and destruction, but Joyeux Noel (French for “Merry Christmas”) is such a film.
The movie begins ominously, with schoolboys from France, Germany, and England reciting militaristic poetry, calling for the extermination of their nation’s rivals. A few years later, those boys are men, hunkered down in the mud- and blood-filled trenches of the Western front. German Lieutenant Horstmeyer (Daniel Bruhl) is picking on opera singer Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Furmann) who has been transferred to his unit and who he sees as a useless artist. A Scottish priest, Father Palmer (Gary Lewis), is worried about his men, especially young Jonathan (Steven Robertson) who is haunted by his brother’s corpse which lies unburied in No-Man’s-Land. And French Lieutenant Audebert (Guillaume Canet) is wracked with anxiety over his pregnant wife who is living in occupied France. He is desperate to know if she has safely delivered their child. The men are terrified, exhausted, and homesick. Then, on Christmas Eve, Sprink raises his voice in “Silent Night” and a hush falls across the front lines. As Father Palmer’s bagpipes pick up the melody, the men begin to rise from the trenches. And the unofficial truce begins…
Few events in World War I are better known or more highly mythologized than the Christmas truce of 1914. Joyeux Noel is not a rigorously historical tale, although it follows the general outline of the event. Where it shines is in the way it tells the story from multiple perspectives: the French, Scottish, and German soldiers are all treated equally, as human beings trapped in a conflict they did not start and in which they all suffer. This is particularly impressive because this film is a French production: the director resists the temptation to ennoble the French troops and to demonize the German ones. (This multinational perspective comes with one potential drawback – all troops speak in their own languages. Moviegoers who dislike subtitles will find this frustrating.)
The movie’s other downside is its sexual content. There is a completely unnecessary scene of sexual activity between an unmarried couple in which a woman’s back, hip and breast are visible for a few moments. Other content issues are those that would be expected in a war movie. Soldiers, including main characters, are seen smoking and drinking alcohol, although none are shown inebriated. There is also some violence: men are shot and stabbed with bayonets and blood, injuries, and death are seen on the battlefield, in the trenches, and in the hospital. The violence is not glamorized or unnecessarily gory but serves the plot.
Content concerns aside, Joyeux Noel is a moving addition to any collection of Christmas films. There is great power in its messages about the brotherhood of mankind; about the difficulty of hating those we have come to know. As Father Palmer muses about the Christmas Eve service he held between the trenches, “These men were drawn to that altar like it was a fire in the middle of winter. Even those who aren’t devout came to warm themselves. Maybe just to be together. Maye to forget the war.” This film, too, can warm the hearts of those who listen to its message of light and compassion in the midst of death and darkness. After all, isn’t that what Christmas is about?Directed by Christian Carion. Starring Benno Furmann, Anna Sorensen, Guillaume Canet, Gary Lewis, Alex Ferns, Steven Robertson. Running time: 116 minutes. Theatrical release September 11, 2005. Updated December 15, 2018
Watch the trailer for Joyeux Noel
Rating & Content Info
Why is Joyeux Noel rated PG-13? Joyeux Noel is rated PG-13 by the MPAA on appeal for some war violence and a brief scene of sexuality/nudity
Violence: Violence commensurate with trench warfare. Soldiers are shown climbing over the trenches and being shot at by automatic rifles and by snipers. Wounded men in no-man’s-land cry out for help but their fellow soldiers cannot rescue them. Bloody wounds are seen on the field, in the trenches and in hospital. A soldier bayonets a man. Men die on screen. Fellow soldiers are seen mourning their deaths. Burials are shown.
Sexual Content: An unmarried couple are shown having sex; the man is on top of the woman and her back, hips and breast are visible. A man sees beetles mating and draws a picture of it.
Profanity: There are approximately a dozen moderate profanities, including terms of Christian deity.
Alcohol / Drug Use: Troops, including main characters, are shown drinking alcohol on several occasions, although not to the point of drunkenness. Main characters are shown smoking pipes and cigarettes.
Page last updated December 15, 2018
Joyeux Noel Parents' Guide
The Christmas truce was a real event, although slightly different from the story in the film. Read about it here.
After the Christmas truce, the soldiers were transferred because they could no longer make themselves kill men they had come to know. Why is it easy to hate a people you don’t know but hard to hate individuals you do? How can we see people as individuals and not as part of a group? How do you think this message applies to conflicts between nations?
Read books about Joyeux Noel
Older elementary school age children will enjoy Aaron Shepard and Wendy Edelson’s Christmas Truce: A True Story of World War 1. This book takes its text from the letters written by soldiers in the trenches in 1914. John McCutcheon’s Christmas in the Trenches also tells the same story, with somewhat sanitized illustrations, for a similarly aged audience.
Silent Night, Holy Night by the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square offers a picture book beautifully illustrated by Robert Barrett. As a bonus, it comes with a DVD-ROM containing narration by Walter Cronkite and music from the choir. This performance can also be viewed online.
Adults and older teens who are interested in this particular bit of history will enjoy Terri Blom Crocker’s The Christmas Truce: Myth, Memory, and the First World War. This non-fiction book examines both the historical record and how this event has been interpreted in popular culture (including in Joyeux Noel).
Related home video titles:
Another movie set in the First World War is Passchendaele which tells the story of Canadian troops and their sacrifice on the Western Front.
In the second “war to end all wars”, Bing Crosby and his fellow actors play singers go to the front to entertain troops at Christmas time in White Christmas.