Near the end of the 2008 film "The Errand of Angels," about adventures in proselytizing in far-off Austria, two young Mormon missionaries visit the small chapel near the city of Oberndorf that memorializes the first public performance of the beloved Christmas carol "Silent Night." That acknowledgement of a small but significant footnote to religious history stuck in the head of "Angels" writer and director Christian Vuissa.
A few years later, while visiting Vienna, he thought of it again. The hymn and its history seemed to offer fodder for a rich and engaging story, and Vuissa eventually pitched a "Silent Night" film project to BYUtv, the cable television broadcasting arm of Brigham Young University. (Vuissa, the founder and organizer of the annual LDS Film Festival in Orem, is a Y alum.)
The result is the new historical drama "Silent Night," which premieres Thanksgiving Day on BYUtv and is also newly available on DVD from Covenant Communications. The film tells the story of Joseph Mohr, the Roman Catholic priest who wrote "Silent Night" as young man, and staged its first public performance on Christmas Eve in 1818.
For Vuissa, "Silent Night" was part of his childhood in Austria, but didn't have quite the stature that it does in the United States and elsewhere. "There's a lot of really nice Christmas carols that come from Austria," he said. "There are a number that we sang for Christmas."
(Vuissa converted to Mormonism as a young man and served a mission to Germany in the mid-1990s before studying film at BYU.)
Even so, "Silent Night" left a mark in its country of origin. Vuissa said that there are several monuments and small museums that commemorate the song and its creators, Mohr and schoolmaster Franz Gruber (also the organist at Mohr's village church), who wrote the melody that still accompanies the timeless words.
"If they were in America, we would combine it all and make a nice theme park," Vuissa said.
In that sense, Vuissa's movie, filmed at or near many of the locations where Mohr once lived and worked, is sort of a virtual visual tour of the history of "Silent Night." And, for some viewers, it could become a new seasonal favorite. Ron Brough, creative director for Covenant Communications, said it comes down to quality.
There may be a lot of existing favorites, Brough said, but "people are always looking for new Christmas movies if they're good."
What is real?
Like all movies based on historical events, "Silent Night" is a blend of fact and fancy. The main historical figures seen in the film, Vuissa said, are Mohr; his combative priestly superior, Father Georg Nostler; and Gruber. Other prominent characters are artful extrapolations or historical composites.
As is noted in the film, Mohr was born out of wedlock and never met his father. It's also known, for example, that after moving to Oberndorf in 1817 to lead a small Catholic parish, Mohr ate his meals at a local tavern. And the mildly unorthodox priest really did have a lifelong interest in music, and was often criticized by his peers for organizing lay choirs.
For the film, then, Vuissa has Mohr meet a friendly barmaid named Maria at the tavern where he takes his supper. He encourages Maria to attend church and bring her male friends, who can swell the ranks of the church choir. (Women were not permitted to sing in church.) And, naturally enough, the autocratic Nostler takes a dim view of inviting riffraff to worship services.
"You try to be true to what you know historically," Vuissa said, and resort to imagination where necessary. "You have to fill in the blanks all the time."
Mohr navigates another tricky relationship in the film that begins with his visits to the home of a sick child. The boy's unwed mother is drawn to Mohr's kindness, and Mohr admires her steadfast courage. There's an obvious direction that their relationship could take, but it's one not likely to turn out well for anyone involved.
That leads to what Vuissa described as being "an innocent scene that has a lot of implications."
Richard Propes, who operates the film review website The Independent Critic, said that gracefully embellishing the bare-bones historical account is a strength of Vuissa's film. "He managed to remain historically faithful," Propes said, "while fleshing out the story in a way that makes it relevant for all of us."
The mother-son subplot is critical in another way: It lets Vuissa introduce Mohr's now-famous poem about the birth of Christ. The original inspiration for the words -- written, per the historical record, well before Mohr's arrival in Oberndorf -- is not known. Vuissa imagines Mohr renewing a forgotten interest by sharing his verses about the Nativity as a bedtime story intended to lift the spirits of a sick child.
A Christmas film for everyone
Most of Vuissa's prior films have explored Mormon characters and Mormon themes, so "Silent Night," with its story of a Catholic village priest in Austria, is a bit of a departure. Vuissa said that was actually more than a bit of a relief.
"When you do a Mormon film for the Mormon community," he said, "you're making a film for experts on the subject. The burden is on the filmmaker to get all of the little details right.
"No one's going to say, 'Oh, this Joseph Mohr is too tall,' or not tall enough, but with Joseph Smith, everyone has an idea."
"Silent Night" was filmed on location in Austria, using a cast of all German and Austrian actors -- who speak English in the film. The shoot was just three weeks in May, with a few days of pickups (footage collected for a film outside its shooting schedule) in February.
Vuissa said that he'd like to potentially have the film dubbed into German for release overseas, but that there was never any question of having the American version use German dialogue and English subtitles.
"People are just not used to that here," Vuissa said. "It just creates a barrier that has to be overcome."
The subject matter of "Silent Night" isn't likely to be a barrier, or at least not to anyone with an interest in Christmas lore. As Propes put it, " 'Silent Night' will certainly never become a holiday classic along the lines of 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' or 'A Charlie Brown Christmas,' but I picture it being warmly embraced by those for whom the 'spirit of Christmas' is not a marketing campaign."
That's probably more than good enough for Vuissa, who said that "Silent Night" tells a story for all people everywhere that happens to have a Christian and, more specifically, Catholic setting. "The overarching theme is hope and that's pretty universal," he said. "I think it's an inspirational film that many different people can enjoy."