‘Joyeux Noel’ Interview: Director Christian Carion

The recently Oscar-nominated Joyeux Noel is a film to stir your soul.

It examines a real story that took place in 1914, at the beginning of World War I. Ensconced in trenches in the German-occupied Northern France, just a few hundred feet away from each other, leaders from the German, French and Scottish regiments decided to lay down their arms for Christmas and celebrate the holiday together. Through the power of religion and song, especially from German tenor-turned-soldier Sprink (Benno Furmann) and his lady love, Danish soprano Anna Sorenson (Diane Kruger), the soldiers from all sides bonded as human beings.

Although the film missed out on winning the Academy Award on March 5, Joyeux Noel director Christian Carion chats with Hollywood.com about his first time at the Oscars as well as bringing the emotions of this real life event to the big screen.

Hollywood.com: First of all, my condolences for not winning. It was a tough year, lots of good films in competition. But Tsotsi’s director Gavin Hood gave a nice speech about how all of you [in the Foreign Language category] had bonded.
Christian Carion: It’s true. We were like a small family for about three, four days. We were all very close and appreciated each other. I hate competition, actually. I don’t know exactly what it means, the “best” movie. But, you know, they have to find one and Tsotsi was it, so I have no problem with that. But the idea of competition is strange to me.

HW: How was the Oscar experience for you?
CC: Well, at first, it was a big pressure, I must admit. I mean they all say, “I’m so happy to be here, I don’t care what happens…” But no, after two days, you change your mind. The show itself, I appreciated. It was very funny. For a couple of hours, I felt like I was accepted by this big family of movies. After the show, at dinner, I got to talk to Steven Spielberg. I said to him, “You know, sir, if I’m here, it’s in some way because of you.” Because in my youth, Steven Spielberg movies were very important to me. They gave me a lot of energy and design to make movies by myself. And then I said, “I’m like you, I didn’t win anything today.” [Laughs]. But Monday morning, everything’s changed, you know? I’m sending Spielberg a copy of the movie, however.

HW: Was Joyeux Noel difficult to make, especially in trying to create these characters both real and fictional?
CC: It was. The main point is I wanted the audiences to sympathize equally with the Germans, the French and the Scots. There is no camp. Good guys, bad guys–no, not at all. Only the soldiers on the frontline as well as the people outside of that. The headquarters for each, they don’t understand what happens on the frontline. But the people on the frontline can understand each other because they are living the same life and suffering the same way. That’s why is understandable they would make a Christmas truce. So I wanted the audiences to love them all the same way but to write this wasn’t as evident to me. I had to forget that I am French. I didn’t want to be more or less sympathetic to the French people because I’m French. It was a very subtle balance and I hope I succeeded.

HW: Absolutely. I mean, after all, soldiers are all still just human beings.
CC: Exactly. I really, really believe they gave us a lesson in humanity, with the Christmas truce. In doing my research, I found out the military headquarters tried to do their best for you to never know it happened. By keeping the letters. By destroying the pictures taken by the soldiers themselves. But I wanted to share my emotion about this story, and with the Oscar nomination, it has brought huge publicity to the story, which is my reward. And now I’m traveling all over the world with the film and people are discovering that on Christmas Eve in 1914, during WWI, the soldiers made a Christmas truce.

HW: Were you able to speak to any of the families of the men who went through this experience?
CC: Unfortunately, no. The last soldier involved in the Christmas truce, a Scotsman, died three months ago. But I saw a BBC documentary made in the ‘70s, in which some of the surviving soldiers were asked questions about it and I took some from that. As well, in the military archives, you can find military reports, letters from the soldiers and can finally understand exactly what happened. The facts are there but my imagination came in creating the characters.

HW: Diane Kruger as the Danish soprano was simply mesmerizing. That wasn’t her singing, was it?
CC: [Laughs] Oh, no. Diane can’t sing like that. It was actually Natalie Dessay, France’s best soprano. Her voice is magic. The scene in which Anna sings for the men on the battlefield, I told Diane, “Now you are an angel. And you speak in the name of God by singing.” Diane’s a wonderful actress. I’ve known her for a long time because she lives in Paris. And of course, you know her because of Troy and National Treasure. Which I respect, of course. It’s entertainment–and it’s not that easy to make. But she can do something else. She can be very spiritual, intense. She’s a wonderful woman. Benno Furmann’s singing voice was doubled by the Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon. Incredible voice.

HW: Is it true when you were a boy growing up in Northern France–where much of WWI was fought–you would find old relics in the fields?
CC: Yes, yes. My parents were farmers in Northern France, and in the fields were still many, many shells that hadn’t exploded, which was very dangerous. Growing up, it was impossible not to think of the first World War. I mean, the first World War was my youth. The French soldier Ponchel in the film, played by Danny Boon, sort of represents those Northern French soldiers who had families nearby in the German-occupied towns. Some would even sneak out of the trenches to spend the night with their wives and children, only to come back in the morning to fight the war. I really think the most important war was the first one because I believe the 20th Century started in August, 1914 when the war started. It’s because of the war that the Communists could take control of Moscow in 1917 because the Russian armies weren’t there. They were fighting elsewhere. It was the first time the United States was involved in a world war. Even the second World War was a consequence of the first one. And it is because of this war, Europe was ruined.

HW: Obviously, this film speaks on many levels. What sort of reactions have you been getting?
CC: The most important thing for me is the emotion. Like I said, I wanted to share my emotions with whole world. And I’m so happy when I arrive in a theater in Montreal, in Berlin, in Paris, in Los Angeles, in London, to feel the audience being touched by the story and the characters. When you are moved, then you are ready to think about why you are so moved. I don’t believe in a film that has a “message.” I don’t want to put in your mind my opinion about this story. Of course, in making this movie, it IS my opinion. I know that. But I try not to be too heavy about it. I just want you to be free to think what you want. In France, a few people said to me, “Well, you don’t have to make this movie because we already have the memories of the dead soldiers who died to win the war in 1914.” And I said, “Yes, but you know, the people involved in the Christmas truce, they died too. There isn’t any difference between the deaths. They are all dead.” Did they die for a good reason or a bad reason? It is my opinion they died for a bad reason. But for the most part in France, many people didn’t know it had happened. So, I wanted to pay respect to these soldiers. We have created an association in France to build a monument in memory of the soldiers, and I’m sure we’ll succeed because of the success of the movie itself. Sometimes movies are useful.

HW: Is that one of the reason you decided to make movies?
CC: Yes, of course. The movies I want to make should have meaning. Of course, with plenty of entertainment because I want the audience to be captured by what I’m telling to them. But I need a point of view, something to tell. Not to just have fun with the people, no, I need much more than this. And I know it’s difficult to do this but…yes, it’s difficult. Making movies is a nightmare. Joyeux Noel, for example, I gave four years of my life. But I was happy to do that. And now I appreciate all that is happening with this movie.

Joyeux Noel is currently playing in limited release..