Raised a Jehovah's Witness, I still have vivid memories of being pulled out of classroom after classroom when holiday festivities, lessons and activities would occur. I remember being aware of holiday traditions and Christmas carols, but mostly I remember feeling like an outsider in a world that seemed consumed by what they called the Christmas spirit.
By the time Christmas entered my life, I'd long since left childhood and innocence and belief behind. I was a tattered and torn sexual abuse survivor struggling to hold onto my hope and desperate for some semblance of light within my life. Oh sure, I started celebrating Christmas in my early 20's when the Jehovah's Witnesses were no longer part of my life and I'd moved out of the family home and onto the streets of Indianapolis.
I celebrated. Sure, I celebrated. But, I didn't really "get it." I got the idea of overly sappy Christmas music and presents from people who wouldn't say "Hi!" to you the rest of the year, but I didn't really get what it meant to truly celebrate Christmas.
There was a part of Christmas that scared me. I think it was the togetherness that I couldn't identify with and the sense of joy and innocence that seemed so incredibly foreign ... even embarrassing.
I tried to sing Christmas carols, but they seemed hollow. "Silent Night" was the worst of all. I hated the hymn with a passion. Every single time I started to sing "Round yon virgin," I felt every single cell of my being blush. I think a huge part of me felt too defiled to even sing the song.
But, I listened. Oh, how I listened.
I thought of all these things and much more as I watched Christian Vuissa's latest film, the magnificently realized and heartfelt Silent Night, a film based upon the true story of how one of the world's most beloved Christmas carols came to be.
There are few filmmakers who are so consistently able to weave together authenticity and artistry as is Christian Vuissa, whose films also include Baptists at our Barbecue, The Letter Writer and Plates of Gold. Vuissa is the founder and President of the LDS Film Festival, and whether he's creating films about Joseph Smith or relationships or making a difference in the world, Vuissa has an undeniable gift for creating films that radiate faith, hope and love in abundance.
Such is the case for the inspired Silent Night, a film that truly deserves to be a holiday classic and your family's latest holiday tradition. Set in 1818, the film follows Joseph Mohr (Carsten Clemens), a young parish priest whose past leaves his present open to question by those who doubt his sincerity and his desire to break away from old church traditions in favor of making the church more accessible to all who would seek to enter. Mohr finds himself constantly in conflict with his superior (Clemens Aap Lindenberg) and others who find his new ways of worship to be bordering on sacrilege.
In the hands of Hollywood, Silent Night would be filled with histrionic conflicts and cathartic reunions. In the hands of an intelligent and insightful director like Vuissa, Silent Night is as warm and sacred as the Christmas Carol upon which it is based.
As Mohr, Carsten Clemens gives a strong performance as the young parish priest whose every move seems to come under scrutiny. Clemens exudes both idealism of an upstart priest and the vulnerability of a young pastor who is still learning his way around the sharing of God's love. Clemens is clearly in touch with Vuissa's vision for the film, because he so completely avoids showy in favor of a more quiet and sincere performance.
As Franz Gruber, Mohr's co-writer, Markus von Lingen infuses Silent Night with a freshness and vibrance that adds an electricity to the film in virtually all of his scenes. On the flip side, Clemens Aap Lindenberg is so convincing as Georg Heinrich Nöstler that one almost winces every time he appears onscreen.
As is always true for a Vuissa film, even the more modest roles are of tremendous substance. Janina Elkin gives a tremendous performance as a young woman from the village who has shied away from the church, but who becomes inspired by Mohr's vision for the congregation. As a young mother, Florence Matousek gives the film's most emotionally resonant performance with one scene, in particular, that will simply leave you breathless.
D.P. Ty Arnold's camera work is breathtaking in its simplicity, while Curtis McOsker's production design leaves one impressed both with period accuracy and the way it serves as a companion to the story. Speaking of the story, Vuissa again pens a story that exudes both history and humanity with dialogue that is both faithful yet accessible.
It has yet to happen that I have not resonated deeply with a Christian Vuissa film, and that remains true after becoming completely mesmerized by Silent Night. There are films in life that you watch time and time again, because they make you laugh or cry or remember or let go. Silent Night is such a film. It's a film, especially for those of you of faith, that you will return to time and time again as you hum along, remember treasured memories and celebrate the dawn of redeeming grace.