Subtext | Merry Christmas!

It’s December, and all around the world people are getting ready to celebrate Christmas. Sometimes it’s easy for people in the English-speaking world to think that our version of Christmas is universal, but that’s far from the case. Even something like the traditional Christmas dinner varies wildly, with Norway eating roast pork, Eastern European countries having a feast of fish, and some Germans even getting a traditional meal of rabbit. With Christmas nowadays more of a cultural festival than a religious one it’s celebrated in non-Christian countries who have even more unique traditions. In Japan they treat Christmas Eve as the most romantic night of the year (more so than Valentines) and couples often buy each other Christmas Cake (a sponge cake with strawberries, not the fruitcake we would expect). Despite all this variation, Christmas movies are an international tradition. We have two very different examples for you today.

Alli Neumann and Kostja Ullmann in Christmas CrossfireKostja Ullmann in Christmas Crossfire

Christmas Crossfire (2020)

Christmas Crossfire (released in Germany as Wir Können Nicht Anders, “We Can’t Help It”) belongs to the Die Hard school of Christmas movies. This black comedy takes place at Christmas, and Christmas plays a part in the plot, but it’s not about Christmas. What it is about is a professor of American literature named Sam (played by Kostja Ullmann) who hooks up in a bar with a girl named Edda (played by Alli Neumann, who’s better known as a singer). After the two have sex in his camper van, she persuades him the next morning to head back to her home town with her for Christmas. On the way they stop, and Sam hears yelling in the woods. Against Edda’s protests, he goes to investigate – a choice that pulls the two into an unfolding mess of betrayal and violence.

A beautifully shot commercial for never visiting the countryside, this film captures a popular theme in German media: rural decay. This reflects a concern going back decades that small towns are dying out with young people (like Edda) tending to move to the cities to get away. A phenomenon well-known in Ireland, to be sure. The plot meanders a little for the first half, playing out as a series of unfortunate events, but comes together in its final act for a satisfyingly dramatic finale. What makes the film work is the characters. Sam and Edda are easy to root for, while the selection of countryside oddballs they have to deal with are all fun and memorable. The central figure of Hermann (played by Sascha Alexander Geršak) is especially compelling as the local “strong man” who sees his power crumbling along with the local economy. One critic described him as an “abandoned, violent provincial gentleman” – two centuries earlier he would have been a minor noble lording it over the commoners, but now his wife cheats on him and he’s fast losing the respect of all around him. Like the town itself, he has been left behind.

With these themes and plot, it’s not surprising that director Detlev Buck is a fan of the Coen brothers. His fellow fans may find a lot to like in this movie. Buck grew up in the country as the child of farmers, and this comes across in the sharp but authentic observations of country life that the film is based on. It’s a fun movie, though some of the comedy may go over the heads of many of us non-Germans and the humour is definitely on the bleak side. (Also, I have to give a content warning for an onscreen suicide that isn’t graphic, but which some may find upsetting.) But as we watch Sam caught up in the moment, Edda finding herself in a dangerous situation, even Hermann on his path of self-destruction – it’s easy to get dragged along for the ride.

Leandro Hassum in  Just Another Christmas

Just Another Christmas (2020)

At the complete opposite end of the scale is Just Another Christmas. This Brazilian comedy stars one of the most iconic characters in the Christmas movie canon: the man who hates Christmas. Jorge (played by Leandro Hassum) has a reason for this. Christmas Eve is also his birthday, and he felt he never got to celebrate a real birthday growing up. As an adult he just didn’t do anything for Christmas – until he married Laura (played by Elisa Pinheiro) and had kids. The film shows him suffering through one family Christmas, with his wife’s relatives visiting for dinner on Christmas Eve. The next day he wakes up – and it’s Christmas Eve again, the following year. With the help of his wife he muddles through, but the next day it’s a year later again. During the year he doesn’t remember Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Eve he remembers nothing else. This explains the Brazilian title, Tudo Bem No Natal Que Vem (“It’s All Right Next Christmas”).

Why Christmas Eve and not Christmas Day? That’s how Brazilians celebrate it. A big family party on the night of the 24th, with a meal at 10pm and presents exchanged after midnight. (Religious sorts would head off to midnight mass after the meal, but clearly Jorge’s family aren’t religious.) Since Brazil is (mostly) in the southern hemisphere it’s summer at Christmas, with warm nights. The following day (the 25th) is often a day for family outings, summer weather permitting. (It’s warm, but it can still get quite rainy.)

At first glance Just Another Christmas seems like a standard screwball comedy, but under the surface Paulo Cursino’s script has some fairly intense themes going on. Jorge’s first few Christmases seem almost like time loops, with the same jokes and arguments around the dinner table each year. The film seems to be showing that each Christmas is all the same, but this is laying the groundwork for the later acts where it becomes clear that the things we take for granted aren’t as permanent as we think. This builds up to an emotional finale that genuinely left me in tears. It’s cheesy, but in a good way.

That’s what makes this film work, really. It’s emotionally relatable for anyone who’s been at those family Christmases, and even more so for anyone who remembers the things you “always do at Christmas” that you don’t get to do any more. Equally relatable is Jorge’s statement at the end, that Christmas is “the perfect time to stop for a while, take a deep breath, and notice that life is more than what happens while we work to pay the bills.” I hope you all get a chance to catch your breath this Christmas, and I’ll see you for more Subtext next year.

All images via IMDB.