The Untold Story of "Silent Night"
February 6, 2013
By Shaun Stahle
The Christmas carol “Silent Night” - with all its charm and reverence - became a world favorite not long after its creation in 1818. Composed in the beautiful lakes region of Austria, in a setting of thick greens and rich blues, the tender lullaby recreates the holiness of the night the Savior of the world was born. Yet for all its popularity, little has been told of its history.
BYU Broadcasting, which seeks to promote the good in the world through upstanding programming, drew upon a script written by Christian Vuissa, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Austrian native, to produce the 90-minute feature film. Titled Silent Night, the film aired on BYUtv during December to enthusiastic reviews.
Brother Vuissa created the storyline after searching libraries, church records, and old newspapers to learn the details of the hymn’s history. He then adapted conversations and personalities to complete the script.
“‘Silent Night’ is music beloved the world over,” said Scott Swofford, executive producer of the movie for BYUtv. When choosing content to produce, BYUtv considers entertainment that is relevant to LDS as well as non-LDS audiences, Swofford said. The rich history of “Silent Night” resonates with faithful people around the world.
The movie portrays a young priest, Joseph Mohr, who is committed to serving those in his parish. He cares for the sick and befriends those in the local tavern who are estranged from religion, endearing himself to the community and congregation but antagonizing and infuriating those bound by tradition. Historical records note that his superior chastised the young priest for conducting Mass in German instead of Latin and for inviting the common tavern folk to join worship services.
Still, Father Mohr felt his role was to bless people with gospel truths, and, contrary to a stern warning, pursued what he believed was right, saying, “God is my superior.”
“Most of us want to do good,” noted Brother Swofford. “We feel like the priest who, facing great odds, chose to see the good and to rekindle hope. We want our lives to matter.”
According to Brother Swofford, programming of this kind faces two challenges: how to be entertaining, and how to be entertaining on a shoestring budget, especially when competing with Hollywood.
Early responses from viewers reveal that Silent Night has been immensely successful.
Pilgrimage to Austria: David and Lora McAllister
David and Lora McAllister recognized the movie’s potential and donated generously to begin production. They visited the set in Austria last May to view the filming.
“We had lunch with all the crew on the first day - a lunch that included the actors and the costume, sound, lighting, and makeup crews. They were all as friendly as could be,” Brother McAllister said.
When it came time to rehearse, the actors changed demeanor as they assumed the personalities of their characters. “The actor playing the part of Father Mohr withdrew from the others to prepare himself in the right state of mind to act,” said Brother McAllister.
The McAllisters witnessed a scene from early in the movie, when a sickly boy of a single mother lies dying in his bed. Father Mohr sits by the boy, and with tenderness and thoughtful concern, seems to feel the boy’s pain and pronounces a blessing. When he returns the next day to check on the boy, the mother happily reports that the lad’s health is improving.
“The sublimity of that scene had me in tears, ” said Sister McAllister, “and it was only a rehearsal. There was a special feeling on the set.”
The McAllisters still remember the impact the movie had on them the first time they saw it in its entirety.
“It blew us away,” Brother McAllister said. “It all flowed together to give meaning. As the movie concluded, we sat in silence, tears flowing, unable to speak. All we could say was ‘wow!’”
The McAllisters have long been generous with their means. For them, the joy of giving is its own reward. It’s the way they live.
Still, there was a moment of hesitancy when they were approached years ago with the prospect of donating to BYUtv. Back then, explained Sister McAllister, BYUtv was in its infancy and its purposes were still unknown. “And besides, I didn’t even watch television,” she said.
But they soon became converted to the power of global broadcasting and the good it does. They saw how their contribution could be magnified. “Our attitude is that we’re serving another mission,” Brother McAllister said, noting that this mission of broadcasting is reaching more people than either of their two previous missions. These movies are proving to be a great missionary tool, he continued. They carry a message and spirit into homes and hearts in advance of the missionaries.
“It’s the kind of programming that members can invite neighbors to watch,” said Brother McAllister. “It delivers a Christian message that is common to all denominations - like when [Father Mohr] is speaking about Christ and delivers a testimony that resonates with all Christians.”
Oberndorf vs. California: Rex and Ruth Maughan
Rex and Ruth Maughan, longtime supporters of BYUtv programming, found a similar fascination with this cherished Christmas carol.
“Since I was a little rascal, I’ve loved ‘Silent Night,’” Brother Maughan said. “After learning about this project we were thrilled to help sponsor it. They did an outstanding job with the movie. I think every family should see it and discuss it.”
The Maughans have donated to many projects that seek to improve the world. In Silent Night they found a historical perspective of someone who stayed his course despite daunting odds.
“Father Mohr went to the edge but didn’t give up,” Brother Maughan said. “As a result we have this beautiful carol that became a favorite the first night it was sung in that little church and is now a favorite all over the world.”
The Maughans noted that the story could have been told using disposable sets built in the California mountains, but they feared that would have cheapened the impact. They praised the extra effort the producers made to create a more realistic story by filming in authentic Austrian sites.
The quaint setting of Oberndorf sets a scene of uncommon beauty that the producers used to enhance the film, such as when Father Mohr walks with Franz Gruber through verdant foliage while sharing his plans to bless the people or when Father Mohr trudges through windswept snow after a disheartening conversation with his superior.
Actual rooms preserved by the Silent Night Museum, as well as Catholic cathedrals and talented actors who speak with native German accents, help transport viewers in time and place. Seemingly, the soothing melody of “Silent Night” could only have been inspired in a setting equally as serene. The film is an unspoken testimony for modern-day conflicts that peace, love, and hope can stem from settings of strife, enmity, and spite.
The Maughans see the programming of BYUtv as a way to unite various audiences of faith-based believers. “Silent Night,” they said, “should be seen by everyone. It’s very eye opening.”
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