As one British soldier says a prayer over a dead comrade, another relentlessly bounces a muddy soccer ball against the trench wall. A third soldier fashions a Christmas tree out of twigs, scraps of paper and other trench debris, while still another blows a mournful “Silent Night” on his harmonica. It’s Christmas Day, 1914, somewhere in the trenches of Europe.
The bouncing ball eventually gets on everyone’s nerves, causing a scuffle to break out. This results in the ball flying out of the trench…only to fly back in again, thrown back by the Germans across the way. The process repeats itself. Only this time, the ball plops down in the middle of the narrow, mucky wastes of No-Man’s Land. Under a white truce flag, a foolhardy British soldier climbs from his trench and retrieves the ball under the wary eyes of German soldiers manning machine guns only a few yards away. Upon returning to his trench with the ball, the Brit has a better idea and, again under a white flag, re-emerges from the trench, sets the ball down, and waits for members of the opposing armies to join him in a surrogate battle.
If there’s one moment that demonstrates the sheer uselessness of World War I, it would have to be this spontaneous soccer match that actually occurred between German and British soldiers, wonderfully depicted here in director Leanna Creel’s short film, “Offside.”
As “Offside” was playing, the audience at this particular Sundance screening began to break out in a nervous titter. People weren’t laughing at the film, but were acknowledging the sheer ludicrousness of the situation as seen through hindsight’s 20-20 vision; an indication that “Offside” was touching home. The film excellently portrays the wasteful nature of that tragic conflict in a way no film has done since “Gallipoli.” This was a war in which soldiers could shoot at each other without really knowing why one minute, come together for an impromptu soccer match the next, then return to their trenches to resume shooting at each other moments later.
The art direction of the film is superb, offering us a rarely seen insight into life in the trenches. The uniforms, the weapons, and especially the surprising proximity — the throw of a soccer ball away — of the opposing armies rings true, as does the anonymous nature of the individual combatants, whose names we never hear.
There is a missed opportunity here. The thick slop of No-Man’s Land provides a perfect chance to muddy-up the soldiers so much, no one’s really sure who’s on what side anymore; an overlooked opening for the filmmakers to make an even more poignant statement that we’re more alike than different.
Had “Offside” followed through and gone to this next level, it would have been nearly perfect. Even as it is, however, Creel’s touching portrayal of this famous World War I slice of life is an excellent piece of work. “Offside” honors those who fought there by memorializing this rapidly receding historical calamity on film, while urging us today to never be so stupid again.