Art can arise from the unlikeliest sources.
Sainsbury is the United Kingdom’s third-largest supermarket chain. This week the company released a video advertisement, “Christmas Is for Sharing,” which depicts the Christmas Day Truce of 1914, when British and German soldiers, mired in the trenches in the early months of World War I, laid down their weapons and emerged for a soccer game in No-Man’s Land. That brief description does the film no justice, because the imagery is striking, the actors’ performances powerful, and the narrative haunting. All this in just three minutes.
Yet the response from some quarters is outrage. The Daily Mail reports that more than 130 people have registered complaints with Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority, calling the advertisement “cynical” and “distasteful.” An advertising professor at Leeds University said watching it made him feel “unclean.”
Writing at the Guardian, Ally Fogg castigates Sainsbury for “co-opting the events for a purpose as crass as flogging groceries,” accusing the company of “all but dress[ing the soldiers] in a sandwich board.” He concludes:
Exploiting the first world war for commercial gain is tasteless. This, however, is not what disturbs me most. . . . The film-makers here have done something to the first world war which is perhaps the most dangerous and disrespectful act of all: they have made it beautiful.
“The past is never dead,” Faulkner famously wrote. “It’s not even past.” And it is certainly true that this particular moment in the past, the bleak years from 1914 to 1918, continues to cast a special pall over Great Britain. Fogg’s objection that “nowhere in the advert do we see the blood and entrails, the vomit and faeces, the rats feasting on body parts” is not a rhetorical point; he is right to call attention to the First World War’s unique horror.
But in his eagerness to emphasize the Great War as a “reminder of our capacity to inflict incomprehensible degrees of violence and suffering upon innocent individuals,” Fogg would obscure the counterbalancing mystery: our capacity, in the midst of unspeakable horror, to experience moments of unutterable beauty.
To Fogg’s repulsion toward “the stunning shot of the robin on the wire, the actors’ trembles as they cautiously emerge from the trenches, half expecting a sniper’s bullet, the flicker of understanding in the eyes as the young soldiers reach into their pockets at the end,” one might respond with the recollections of Viktor Frankl, who in his classic Man’s Search for Meaning reflected on his experience in perhaps the darkest moment in modern history — the Holocaust:
In camp . . . a man might draw the attention of a comrade working next to him to a nice view of the setting sun shining through the tall trees of the Bavarian woods. . . . One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset.
If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty.
Frankl only offers eyewitness testimony to what man has known from time immemorial, immortalized in art of every kind, from Homer’s Iliad to Britten’s War Requiem. The war-related art that has succeeded resonates not because the artists managed to substitute their wishful thinking for reality, or to read back into the historical record what was never there; rather, they only dramatized what took place.
That is the achievement of the (much disputed) poets of the First World War, who, like Frankl, were able to see nature’s ineffaceable beauty through the ugliness of war. Their work succeeds precisely to the extent that they captured their — and their comrades’ — experiences. Such was the achievement of Wilfred Owen, who would not live to see the war’s end: “Hour after hour they ponder the warm field — / And the far valley behind,” he wrote in “Spring Offensive,” “where the buttercups / Had blessed with gold their slow boots coming up.” Never is all turned ugly, the image suggests. Not really.
The Sainsbury ad, albeit in its lesser way, does the same. But what it also captures — and this is more important — is, amid so much ruin, the possibility of moments of inexplicable, unfathomable love.
“If only it were all so simple!” wrote the great Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
Fogg wishes “to retain those [soldiers’] deaths with respect and a degree of reverence.” But to try to do that by denying to the Great War all beauty — especially the beauty of gratuitous, unjustifiable human compassion — would strip those honored dead of the very reason they deserve respect and reverence: because they were human, because the line dividing good and evil cut through their hearts, too. And while it occasioned much carnage and misery, it also spurred acts of compassion, generosity, and more, which generated beauty even in the midst of desolation. Why would one seek to bury that fact?
The 1914 Christmas Day Truce may be “near-mythical,” as Fogg says. But that does not diminish what happened that day. And even if Sainsbury sells a few more chocolate bars this season, that does not diminish the extraordinary reminder the company has offered of man’s capacity for light even in the darkest of times.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.