Commentary on “Joyeux Noel”


A Film by French writer/director Christian Carion – PG-13, 116 minutes -
Commentary by Mountain Shadow Director John Bennison 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre    
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;    
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;    
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,    
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere    
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;    
The best lack all conviction, while the worst    
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;    
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.    
The Second Coming! 
Hardly are those words out    

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi    
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;    
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,    
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,    
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it    
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know    
That twenty centuries of stony sleep    
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,    
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,    
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

In 1915, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats was asked by Henry James to write a poem following the onset of World War I, as part of a fundraiser for Belgium refugees.  Yeats reluctantly submitted a few brief lines:

I think it better that in times like these
A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night. 

One hundred years ago, nation states had taught their young to hate the Hun, the French and Englishman.  And by 1919, Yeats had borne witness to what four years of human slaughter had wrought upon the world he knew.  His poem, “The Second Coming” not only ushered in the literary era often referred to as modernist poetry, but challenged subsequent generations to name that “rough beast,” as he called it, that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.” 

One of the stories told and re-told in this holiday season is the fanciful tale of a babe born in a feedbox in a backwater province of the Roman Empire twenty centuries ago. Another story is the historical account of an unauthorized ceasefire nearly a century ago that sought to quell a beast that still besets us.

The so-called Great War, the “War to end all wars” from a century ago, would now seem a distant memory, and an unfulfilled hope and broken promise.  Civil and sectarian strife erupts routinely around the globe. Radical extremists countermand high-tech military options by superpowers; all the while conceding an endless “war on terror” seems to be the new normal. Yeat’s revelatory hope of a “second coming” may seem almost quaint by today’s standards.

That longing for something other than the great beast that has stumbled on through human history seems to have eluded us. But if there is a shared holiday greeting by everyone of any persuasion it remains the common wish for peace on earth, goodwill to all.

For a brief moment in 1914, a familiar carol floated over the trenches on a clear, starlit night with a steel-blue sky. For a day and a night there was a peaceful reprieve. Joyeux Noel leaves us asking these many years later, why only for a day and a night?


Film synopsis:

On the Christmas Eve of 1914, in the Western Front in France in World War I, the Scottish, the German and the French troops have a moment of truce and share moments of peace and friendship. When the soprano Anna Sorensen succeeds in convincing the Prussian Prince to join her tenor husband Nikolaus Sprink to sing for the German high command, Sprink brings her to the front to sing for his comrades in the trench. The Scottish Lieutenant Gordon and the French Lieutenant Audebert have an informal and unauthorized meeting with the German Lieutenant Horstmayer and negotiate a truce for that night, and the priest Palmer celebrates a mass for the soldiers. When their superiors become aware of the event, they have to pay for the consequence of their acts.

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