It was the deadliest war in human history when it was fought in 1914-18. The Great War, that is. Each of those years was appalling for its slaughter, but the deadliest of all — 1914 — lasted only five months from August to December. During this period the French suffered over a million casualties on the Western Front, including 329,000 dead, ‘casualties’ meaning those killed, missing, wounded or captured. Germany suffered 800,000 casualties during the same period, three times the number of German soldiers killed during the entire Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. So, yes, wholesale slaughter, mass mechanised murder on an industrial scale.
This was the background to the Christmas truce of 1914, which happened because of homesickness, nostalgia and war weariness. Other precipitating factors: singing in the trenches, bagpipes and harmonicas, Christmas trees with ornaments and candles in the German trenches, and a narrow no-man’s land of 100 metres separating the two sides, French and Scottish troops versus German — so narrow that the words to the songs could clearly be heard and hummed by both sides. Nobody was in the mood to kill or be killed on Christmas Eve. The informal truce thus became famous for being a rare demonstration of shared decency and humanity during the war. Instead of the usual exchanges of gunfire and artillery the soldiers shared cigarettes, chocolates, schnapps, whiskey, wine and champagne, as well as photos of loved ones. On Christmas Eve they sang carols and listened to a priest deliver a Latin mass together. On Christmas Day itself, bright, sunny and snowy, they dug graves for their frozen dead, said prayers, played cards and football, and in some cases exchanged addresses. They even shared a common trench during artillery bombardments in the afternoon that day — Allied soldiers sharing the German trench with German soldiers during a German bombardment of the Allied line, then the opposite (Germans in the Allied trench) during a return, retaliatory volley by French and Scottish artillery batteries.
So what did it all mean? It meant the obvious: they preferred life to death. But how can that work? The logic and business of war is killing and death. Take this away from it and you kill war. Which is why fraternisation was so dangerous to High Command. It could lead to peace, and peace doesn’t win wars. Violence does. Worse even than mutiny or desertion, fraternisation strikes at the heart of war, dissolving armies and sapping their will to fight.
Muntineers and deserters were shot for their cowardice. Hundreds died during the war, executed by their own High Command. But not a single fraternising soldier on either side was shot for laying down arms during the Christmas truce. Why not? Damage control, to keep the truth from the public. Imagine what such news would do to the war effort. The vicious Hun actually human? The French humane? The Scots jovial and friendly? No, sir. The enemy is a wicked brute. If he’s not demonised, killing him is murder, which it is but can’t be called. Other preferred wartime words: honour, sacrifice, valour, glory, nation, flag, tradition. No indoctrination, no brainwashing, no war. Thus an overriding theme of the film is that war is vulnerable to at least three things: sanity, human goodwill and decency, and art (in this case music).
Nikolaus Sprink is a German tenor with the Berlin Opera. His wife is Anna Sørensen, a Danish mezzo-soprano. They are the golden couple of German song, operatic stars. We see them on stage early in August 1914. Anna is performing on stage while Nikolaus waits in the wings, about to join Anna. But the performance is suddenly interrupted by a German officer in uniform and black boots. The music ceases as his oration begins, a pious nationalistic message from the Kaiser that says Germany is now under threat, that war must be used to protect the Fatherland. Or as Jim Morrison once put it, “When the music’s over, turn out the lights.” Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign minister, shared a similar sentiment at this moment in early August: “The lamps are going out all over Europe.” This film beautifully shows what happens when the darkness descends.
Nikolaus is forced to enlist. No other option for able-bodied men of his generation (he’s about 27). In Berlin, capital of German art, he’s magisterial, but in the trenches he’s a stiff like all the others, a lowly private. Used to commanding audiences from the stage, he’s now himself commanded by commanding officers. He doesn’t like the look of any of it: the military, militarism, violence, blood, pain, death, destruction — all of it antithetical to his being, art, sensibility, aestheticism. He shouldn’t be here, or the world shouldn’t be currently constructed as it is for him. He’s displaced, misplaced: wrong man, wrong job.
Plus he’s in love. Not only with art, with music, but more importantly with Anna, beautiful Anna, Nordic blonde beauty Anna from Pussia’s old enemy, Denmark. If he can love the enemy, why can’t his homeland? Why is Germany so riven and driven by hate when all he wants is love, music and Anna? Which of the two lacks maturity, man or country?
Anna’s voice is impossibly high, a thing nearly surreal and angelic. It’s so pure and high-pitched you almost think it could break glass (as the shrill voice of little Oskar can in “The Tin Drum” by Günter Grass). But Anna is a healer and consoler, not a breaker of things. Her art brings feminine warmth and humanity to all who hear her beautiful voice.
The golden couple are invited to sing for the Crown Prince, son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who is dressed in uniform and staying with German High Command at a chateau a few miles behind the lines in northern France. The atmosphere is elegant, the food sumptuous, the champagne marvellous. Dinner guests are immaculately dressed, perfumed, clean. Nikolaus stares at it all in wonder. It’s December now — December 1914. The war, raging for over four months, has reached this impasse — stalemate, trench warfare, a long line of defensive trenches dug into the earth from Flanders in the north to Switzerland in the south, one long deep scar across the face of Western Europe. Nikolaus — direct from the mud and filth and lice and stench of death in the trenches — stands in the ballroom in his finery, beautiful Anna on his arm. He looks dazed, shell shocked, because he is. He has come from the pockmarked, cratered surface of the moon to this. A piano and orchestra play. The Crown Prince eagerly awaits his private performance from the couple.
They perform. Anna begins. She sings the opening high notes of “Bist du bei mir”, an 18th century aria from the opera “Diomedes” by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. The full phrase is “Bist du bei mir, geh ich mit Freuden” (“If you are with me, I go in joy”). The eyes of the Crown Prince close. He sits enraptured, intoxicated by Anna’s voice. Nikolaus stands near her uncertainly. He hasn’t sung for months, his voice raspy from shouting to comrades. War is no place for opera, despite opera’s grand baroque themes. He’s no match for Anna anymore, he feels, and we hear it too when his voice momentarily cracks as he begins. At this point the piano stops, the large room suddenly silent. The Crown Prince looks on in wonder. Nikolaus looks at his wife in sorrow. In return she looks at him with radiant love, her eyes shining, a love that gives him strength. And just in this moment you realize they aren’t singing for the Crown Prince, the Kaiser, Germany, the German army or the war. They are singing for each other, their song a celebration of their love. It’s subtle, this moment, but it’s there in the film, and when Nikolaus resumes (his voice now strong and vibrant) we grasp its true meaning.
This moment acts as a leitmotif for the film. It contains the essence of what the film is about. Art, love and civilisation matter. We live for these, not national pride, imperialism, glory. There’s no glory in what Nikolaus has seen in the mud. There never was. It was all a lie, a grand illusion. This moment is what’s real — this music, woman, beauty and love.
The film has been criticised by some for being sentimental, but the critics who say this are wrong. It isn’t. It’s heartfelt, the opposite of sentimentality, the aforementioned scene forming the heart of what the film is about.
Implausibly or not, the golden couple bring operatic song to the trenches. Nikolaus sings on Christmas Eve, holding a small Christmas tree in no-man’s land. No one shoots. All listen. Then they applaud — genuine, rapturous applause. His audiences in the film are three. First, the formal one seated in the Berlin Opera House. Second, the institutional one with the Crown Prince in the French chateau. And third here in the mud and snow, the winter stars shining, the Christmas tree candles glowing. Why are the trees here? Due to one of history’s better ironic jokes. They’re here at the command of the Kaiser. The trees will brighten morale at the front. They’ll also be part of a celebration of victory, as this will be the last dreary Christmas the troops will have to live through. Soon Paris and even more will belong to the Fatherland. That was the conviction, otherwise known for what it was — fantasy and delusion based on pride, vanity and arrogance. First in culture, first in might too, a might that will make everything right.
Anna joins Nikolaus in no-man’s land, a large assembly from both sides having formed. In the cold night air she sings an aria in Latin, the voice pure, beautiful, angelic. The soldiers sit and listen, their faces and ears disbelieving. Have they all died and gone to Heaven? Has the war ended? Can I go home now? I need everything: my home, wife, children, wine, good food, sound sleep and a bath. Sweet return to the land of peace.
For a moment they are there in that rich and pleasant land — spiritually, emotionally. The men they have been killing sit silently with them, all of them dreaming of the things they miss that the war has taken from them.
Because the film is subtle, understated and modest, it gets better with each new viewing. Important moments unfold naturally through the film’s emotional logic, not by cued performances designed to elicit specific responses. By not being manipulative, then, it eschews the urge to call attention to itself. One scene embodies this for me. I love Dutch landscape painting. The old masters — Bosch, Bruegel, van Ruisdael, Hobbema, Aert van der Neer, et. al. — had the touch. They could bring landscapes to life. Especially Bruegel. His Earth is always peopled. The people may look like ants, tiny beings in vast panoramas, but they are there. One wide shot in the film, sustained for about five or six seconds, is Bruegelesque. The snowy ground around the trenches is seen as if from a nearby hill. The ground is white, the sky grey-blue on Christmas Day. Men move through the landscape digging holes, carrying corpses, dragging equipment back to the trenches. We see them in relief against the earth and sky, small beings in black. The scene is worth freezing and admiring, which is one of the reasons the pause button on the remote control was invented. Just gaze and appreciate what looks like a painting. It is gorgeous like Bruegel’s dark hunters in the snow.
And the scene is not accidental. Christian Carion, the film’s director, says in the commentary section of the DVD that he spent two days in the Louvre in Paris with his Dutch cinematographer Walther van den Ende. They sought out the old Dutch masters there for ideas, colour templates, perspectives, inspiration. And it shows. Profoundly considered and intelligently rendered, the film is no slap-dash work of art. Also, as stated, it has heart, its main concern the sorrow and pity of it all.
A German corporal who fought in the war is thankfully not mentioned or shown in the film. Adolf Hitler was his name. He was appalled by the Christmas truces up and down the line on December 24. They were unseemly, unmanly. The armies came to fight, not fraternise. He had a point but as usual missed the bigger picture. If opera meant anything to him, it was political and expedient. All was political and expedient with him. He studied art but failed as a painter. Why? Because — like Faust — he had no soul. To hear and be moved by the music in the trenches that night you had to have soul. None of it resonated and registered otherwise. None of it made any sense.
On Boxing Day 1914 the guns resumed. The Christmas of 1914 would not be the last of the war. Three more would come and over 11 million soldiers would die before the carnage ceased. Christmas 1918 was sombre but at least peaceful. The world and the great German writer Hermann Hesse would take a long time to recover, if indeed the world has, even now. For me Hesse says it all here:
“The Great War…devastated the world. Today we stand among its ruins, still deafened by its noise, embittered by its absurdity, and sickened by the streams of blood that haunt all our dreams.”
Benno Fürmann as Nikolaus Sprink
Diane Kruger as Anna Sørensen
Guillaume Canet as Lieutenant Camille René Audebert (French 26th Infantry Regiment)
Daniel Brühl as Lieutenant Horstmayer (German 93rd Infantry Regiment)
Alex Ferns as Lieutenant Gordon (Royal Scots Fusiliers)
Thomas Schmauser as Crown Prince Friedrich (1882-1951)