One pro-globalization axiom is that no two countries with a McDonald’s have ever gone to war. It’s probably too early in Mickey D’s intergalactic expansion to make too much of that fact, and nations with close cultural affinities have often warred in the past—most devastatingly during that splatter flick of a century that ended in 2000. A pair of new European films, Joyeux Noël and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, revisit that continent’s world wars, seeking uplift and finding it in Roman Catholic ideals of peace and resistance. Yet only one of the films is candid enough to admit that the same sect that inspired some to pacifism also repeatedly urged its faithful into battle.
A multilingual, nominally French international co-production, Joyeux Noël is based on World War I’s most heartwarming true story: the impromptu truce that briefly halted fighting on Christmas 1914. But writer-director Christian Carion’s movie, a well-realized middlebrow parable that made it to the final five in 2006’s best-foreign-film Oscar tourney, opens with a bracing bit of nastiness, in triplicate. In France, Scotland, and then Germany, three schoolboys recite jingoistic claptrap to their classmates. Cut to the news that these countries are going to war and to a group of slightly older boys heading to the recruiting office. “At last, something is happening,” says a young Scot as his parish priest, Father Palmer (Gary Lewis), regards him sadly. Yet Palmer must follow his hometown boys to France, caring for their vulnerable bodies as well as their sinful souls.
In Berlin, the thrill of potential carnage interrupts even the opera, where German tenor Nikolaus Sprink (Benno Fürmann) and his Danish co-star and lover, Anna Sörensen (Diane Krüger, Troy’s Helen), are about to duet. In Carion’s fictionalization of the Christmas truce, this handsome (if ineptly lip-syncing) couple is crucial: In order to see the now-uniformed Sprink again, Sörensen arranges a Christmas concert for German officers near the front. Then she offers to perform for the grunts in the trenches, with the hope that she can persuade her beloved to desert across Allied lines and travel with her to a neutral country. As Sprink sings “Silent Night,” a Scottish bagpiper joins in. Soon, soldiers from all three countries have clambered into no man’s land, sharing holiday food and drink and a mass said by Father Palmer in their common religious language, Latin. This is not today’s Baghdad or Kabul, where the opposing forces don’t understand each others’ music, religion, or opinion of champagne.
Of course, in 1914, most Scots and Germans hadn’t been Catholic for centuries. But some still were, and Carion takes care to establish the plausible details of his wartime idyll. (Most of the Germans are from heavily Catholic Bavaria, later the home of Sophie Scholl.) Slightly wimpy French officer Audebert (Guillaume Canet) bonds with his tougher (and Jewish) German counterpart, Horstmayer (Daniel Brühl), over a rediscovered photo of the Frenchman’s wife and the German’s memories of his Paris honeymoon. Sörensen sings “Ave Maria” and discusses Audebert’s imminent fatherhood with him. The next day, the soldiers agree to continue their truce so they can retrieve their comrades’ bodies, a collaborative effort that leads to soccer and tips on imminent shellings.
Carion balances the various stories and roles as if European peace, and not just actors’ egos, were in the balance. Indeed, the principal problem with Joyeux Noël is not its gentility but its overcareful sense of symmetry. The Scots have religion, the Germans music, and the French family—and none of the individual characters ever trumps that arrangement. The film successfully conjures war and peace, as well as its competing notions of Christian duty, but it’s vague on any but the most generic sort of humanity. The two-named cat who cadges food from both German and French troops shows more range than any of the players with speaking parts.
Naturally, when word of that bloodless interlude gets around, all three brigades are disciplined, and Palmer is sent home while his bishop stridently reminds the troops that “Christ brings a sword.” The pontiff’s harangue is not subtle, and some reviewers have rejected it as excessive. Yet the sermon’s message is historically accurate, and it serves as both a thematic and structural bookend to the chauvinistic children’s speeches that open the film. After all, the brief outbreak of peace that Joyeux Noël celebrates wouldn’t be notable if the bishop’s remarks didn’t express the dominant view in 1914—and a pretty common one today.
As a real-life resister of Nazi tyranny who was guillotined for her role in distributing anti-government pamphlets, Sophie Scholl is a heroine for the ages. As a character in German movies, however, she’s problematic. Her historical presence italicized by the silver screen, Scholl seems to personify a principled, broad-based German anti-Nazi movement that, in fact, did not exist. Her cinematic self flatters the nation that murdered her, which may be why she and her cohorts in the tiny Munich student group the White Rose have been the subject of three German films since 1982. That year, in fact, Lena Stolze played Scholl twice, in both Michael Verhoeven’s The White Rose and Percy Adlon’s Last Five Days.
Director Marc Rothemund’s Sophie Scholl: The Final Days returns to the story line of the latter film but with documentary justification: Fred Breinersdorfer’s script draws heavily on recently unearthed transcripts of the Gestapo’s questioning of Scholl. The new docudrama opens with the title character (Julia Jentsch, who co-starred with Joyeux Noël’s Brühl in last year’s The Edukators) and a pal singing along to an American jazz tune, and it uses contemporary Eurocinema techniques—handheld camera, quick cuts, techno-thump music—to evoke the moment in February 1943 when Scholl and her brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) were arrested for distributing fliers in a university-building atrium. The rest of the story is confined to the German prison where Scholl was questioned, tried, sentenced, and executed.
There are scenes of Scholl with Hans and fellow White Rose member Christoph Probst (Florian Stetter), her parents, and her Communist cellmate, Else Gebel (Johanna Gastdorf), as well as in a courtroom overseen by a shrill Nazi judge (André Hennicke). But Scholl’s principal foil is her interrogator, Robert Mohr (Alexander Held), who seems motivated as much by condescension as by compassion when he tries to get the young woman to downgrade her responsibility for the leaflets. Mohr is, of course, an atheist, and Scholl unsurprisingly turns to God for the strength to make stirring statements against the mass derangement of Nazism. It’s a setup that recalls last year’s The Ninth Day, the Volker Schlöndorff two-hander in which an SS officer jousts with a Catholic priest.
Rothemund is reportedly not religious, and this is not a Christian propaganda film. Scholl’s faith was essential to her anti-Nazi opinions and actions, and it inspired such rousing statements as the one she delivers to her maniacal judge: “You will soon be standing where we stand now.” Jentsch is persuasive as the playful 21-year-old who would never for an instant consider abandoning her principles, and sentimentality is kept in check even as Scholl approaches her death with a too-serene smile. Aside from that unconvincing expression, the only thing in the film that seems overstated is Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil’s score, which pumps the drama where no supplemental emotion is required.
Yet Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, also a 2006 best-foreign-film Oscar runner-up, fails to click for two reasons, one practical and the other conceptual. Despite the discovery of the interrogation transcripts, the movie doesn’t really add anything to The White Rose, a powerful account that borders on the definitive. And, as in The Ninth Day, the implication that Christianity offered a viable alternative to Nazism is a weak exercise in rationalization: Scholl’s interrogator might have been an atheist, but most Nazi supporters were believers steeped in centuries of Christian anti-Semitism. It’s fitting that this movie depicts Scholl in her solitary last days, for she and her small band of fellow seditionaries were the lonely vanguard of an anti-Nazi movement that never arrived.CP