Into Great Silence (Die Große Stille, 2005)

Director: Philip Gröning

2007 European Union Film Festival


By Marilyn Ferdinand

In the mountainous region near Grenoble, France, sits the Grande Chartreuse, the centuries-old home monastery of the reclusive Carthusian Order of the Roman Catholic Church. The monks, whose lives of contemplation, prayer, and isolation are considered the most strict and severe of all monastic orders, are extremely sheltered from secular eyes. This sheltering is not in opposition to the outside world, but rather to prevent distraction from their constant prayer.

Therefore, when director Philip Gröning first approached them about documenting their lives, they did not say “no,” only that they were not yet ready. When they were ready, 16 years later, he was invited in. The result is the rare and singular experience that is Into Great Silence.

The first image is a grainy, almost pixellated close-up of a man’s profile. He appears to be laying on his side with his fist close to his mouth, as though he were sucking his thumb while in the fetal position. This still, ineffable image perfectly captures the mystery of the Carthusians, as well as their state of emergent grace that will be realized at death. Indeed, Gröning, with this grainy shooting technique, seems to suggest the eye of God, the unseen character who propels every action in the film, from the trimming of celery for dinner to the often-repeated ringing of the church bell for morning devotion.

Gröning takes a calendar approach to the monks’ lives. A harsh, mountain winter gives way to a shy, then gloriously verdant spring. Eventually, we find ourselves buried in snow again, emphasizing a very simple life governed primarily by nature’s rhythms. Primarily, but not exclusively. The monastery has its accountant, who uses a laptop to keep track of the bills and correspondence. One monk prepares for a plane trip to Seoul. Electricity, not candles, lights each monk’s cell. Obviously store-bought fruit sits in an artistic still life Gröning composes for our contemplative use.

Great%20Silence%203%20edit.JPGNonetheless, the bulk of this movie is given over to observing the devotions of the Carthusians. We witness the initiation of two novices, and Gröning follows one of them, a black African, during his first year in the monastery. We watch him get his head shaved at the monthly trimming. We watch him in prayer in his cell, kneeling at an altar for one, and returning to a seated position in quiet prayer, his cowl pulled over his head. We see him sit at a window counter to eat his dinner, passed to him through a normally locked service window in the hall by a monk pushing the dinner trolley.

The only meals the Carthusians share are Sunday dinner and special feast days. During one Sunday meal, a monk reading from the rule of the Carthusian Order, emphasizes that this communal dining is to give Great%20Silence%202%20edit.JPGthe monks the pleasure of family life. The monks also take a weekly walk for exercise and to receive the refreshment of nature. In the warmer months, we see the monks walk and talk, finally gathering in a circle. Here they discuss the necessity of washing before dinner; one order has already eliminated the practice. One monk chimes in, “They were Trappists.” That got a chuckle from the audience. A more serious discussion about symbols follows. One monk offers the opinion that there is nothing wrong with symbols such as handwashing; if doubts arise about them, the problem is with the monks themselves, not the symbols, and must be meditated upon.

There are moments of transcendence in this film. A dark chapel in which all the monks lie prostrate on the floor, with only a candle burning in a red glass visible. The haunting chants of the monks in prayer. Gigantic snowflakes falling on the pitched, tiled roof of the monastery. Wildflowers and trees waving in the mountain air.

Intemittently, Gröning puts up a title card (in French, with German subtitles for the film’s original German audience, and a further layer of subtitles in English for us). Only a few phrases are included on these title cards, and these are repeated throughout the film. One is “Lord, you have seduced me, and I was seduced.” Looking at the miraculous beauty surrounding the Grande Chartreuse, it’s easy for an audience to be enticed by its majesty. However, another admonishment—that only those who give up everything they have can become Christ’s disciples—meets resistance.

Great%20Silence%201.jpgThe Carthusian way of life cannot be understood at our emotional core, and the modern world, so out of touch, craves emotional revelation like a drug. Without it, this nearly 3-hour-long film can be a slow and tedious slog. Gröning provides full-face close-ups of the monks, three at a time like an altar triptych, as a means to uncover the source of their devotion. The eyes may be called the windows to the soul, but it is not possible to feel their faith in this way. One elderly monk who has gone blind says he thanks God every day for blinding him. He sincerely believes that God does everything for our benefit and that God thought blindness was necessary for the monk’s soul. Even this welcome interview in the mainly silent film does not really clear the confusion.

Into Great Silence is a documentary whose point of view is subtle, undocumentary-like. Unlike this year’s Oscar winner, An Inconvenient Truth, the meaning of this film is neither propagandistic, educational (except as a document of a mainly hidden way of life), nor necessarily feel-good or feel-outraged. The monks experience joy (reference the scene where they slide down a snowy hill on their bottoms or their ski-less feet), but most of it we cannot experience with them. Nonetheless, outer progress is not the only form of real life, and inner progress may not be truly achievable through once-a-week devotion or 15 minutes of meditation. This film is seductive, and some viewers will be seduced.

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