Into Great Silence
Director Philip Gröning discusses life at the Grande Chartreuse monastery, the presence of God in the world, and his award-winning film
Written for Catholic World Report
By Steven D. Greydanus
In 1984, filmmaker Philip Gröning had an idea for a film. He took his proposal to the prior of the Grande Chartreuse monastery, the head monastery of the Carthusian order, high in the French Alps between Grenoble and Chambéry. Gröning wanted to shoot a documentary inside the Grande Chartreuse — not an ordinary documentary, concerned with the transmission of information, but a spiritual voyage into the inner meaning and experience of monastic life.
“I’m not a very didactic filmmaker,” Gröning told Decent Films. “I knew I wanted this to be a film that turns into an experience. I knew that I wanted this not to be a film about information.”
Like the Carthusians themselves, who follow a strict discipline of silence, the film would be without explanatory voiceovers, interviews, or commentary of any sort. There would also be no score or soundtrack of added (or non-diegetic) music to enhance or direct viewer emotions (in contrast to nearly wordless but scored nature documentaries like Atlantis, Microcosmos, and Winged Migration).
The film would consist entirely of the images and sounds of monastic life, reflecting the rhythm of work and prayer, day and night, winter and spring. In this way, Gröning hoped not so much to show the viewer what a monastery is like as to facilitate a personal encounter with the rigors and joys of contemplative life.
Approached with this proposal, the Carthusians didn’t say yes and they didn’t say no. Instead, they said in effect, “Let us get back to you.” They wanted some time to think it over — a decade or more, they said.
It was ultimately sixteen years before the Carthusians finally got back to Gröning and said that they were now ready — if the filmmaker was still interested. He was.
This back story to Into Great Silence — related in a postscript intertitle at the end of the finished film — is more than a picturesque anecdote. It is a telling insight into a world in which time is experienced very differently than in the workaday world we live in.
Like Tolkien’s Ents, there’s nothing “hasty” or haphazard about the Carthusians. They live deliberately, in every sense of the word, and the sixteen years Gröning spent waiting for approval to shoot in the monastery were in a way the beginning of his acclimatization to the Carthusian sensibility, and the beginning of the film’s gestation period.
Gröning was admitted to the Grand Charteuse in mid-March of 2002, and shot for about four and a half months, returning for additional shooting in December and January — about six months in all. Working without a crew, he shot in high-definition digital video, operating the camera and recording the sound alone, relying only on available light. While at the monastery, the director followed their discipline of silence as well as their grueling routine of prayer and work, which never allows more than three hours of sleep at a time. (“I have to admit that I omitted the night prayers a couple of times,” Gröning has confessed.)
Shooting approximately three hours a day, Gröning amassed over 120 hours of digital video. As a contrasting effect, he also shot some grainy Super‑8 film. He then spent over two years editing and reediting, seeking a delicate balance that would sustain the elusive experience he was after.
“Very, very difficult” is how Gröning described the editing process. “Editing took about two and a half years… the film kept falling apart. I had a few structural elements that I knew I wanted… but all the rest — that was sort of the monastic process for me: the process of having to accept that I don’t know very much about this film, and the film would slowly teach me where it actually wants to go. The virtue of humility was brought to me through the fact that in the editing I was watching it fall apart again and again and again, until suddenly it was there.”
“It was there” is as good a way of putting it as any. Like a mountain, Into Great Silence towers above the surrounding landscape, its austerity and splendor a silent but inexorable call to the adventurous to brave its heights. Or rather, not a mountain, but a mountain monastery. Gröning has said that his goal was a film that, “more than depicting a monastery, becomes a monastery itself.”
The call has been heard. Into Great Silence has been a hit in Europe, packing theaters and enjoying long runs in several countries including Italy and Gröning’s native Germany. Its popular success in Europe has been likened to that of the crowd-pleasing March of the Penguins in the US — but that film connected with American family audiences in part due to Morgan Freeman’s famously honeyed narration as well as the adorableness of its subjects. (The original French version went even further, actually giving the penguins anthropomorphic voiceover dialogue read by actors.) To achieve comparable success in post-Christian Europe with an austere 2½-hour art film about Catholic monks is a striking triumph to say the least.
Among various awards and nominations, it took a special jury prize at Sundance and won best documentary at the European Film Awards. It has also won critical acclaim in venues including The New York Times, Variety, Salon, Slant, and others. Gröning also reported that the film was a success with perhaps its toughest audience: the Carthusians themselves. “The monks saw the film and they really loved it,” Groning said. “They were laughing a lot at the scenes that we laugh at.”
After playing throughout Europe and elsewhere in 2005 and 2006, the film was brought to the US in 2007 by indie film distributor Zeitgeist Films (which also distributed Sophie Scholl – The Final Days). The film opened in the US a week after Ash Wednesday at New York’s Film Forum, and is now playing at various locations around the country until at least June (find showtimes).
Already available on DVD in Europe, the film is slated for an American DVD release in the fall. Even so, the director’s comments on the nature of the cinematic experience underscore why viewers who live within driving distance of one of the film’s scheduled playdates shouldn’t miss the opportunity to see Into Great Silence in theaters. “A monastery and a cinema in a certain way are so similar,” Gröning said. “They are both spaces where you exclude outer influences, and you create a structure of time that will open up a channel to an inner space for the [participant].”
Watching the film on the big screen, the quiet of the monastery reaches out into the theater: the creaking of monastery floorboards, the creaking of theater seats. (This is not the sort of film likely to attract rowdy teenage patrons.) At home, the distractions of everyday life, not to mention the control of a pause button, compete with viewer’s commitment to this inner space. In the theater, we are pilgrims; at home, it is easier just to be tourists. However many times I watch Into Great Silence on DVD, I will always be grateful for my first theatrical encounter with the film.
As the English title suggests, Into Great Silence is meant to be an excursion, a pilgrimage. The German title, Die Große Stille (“The Great Silence”), lacks this sense of movement, leading one to wonder whether the English title was a marketing conceit. Gröning denied this; the English title, he said, was not only his idea, but his preferred title.
“The English title comes from me,” he said. “I think that the English title is much richer than the German title, because the English title has this sort of movement into silence, whereas in German you could not do that. You could say in die große Stille, which would also be sort of similar to ‘into great silence,’ but most people would misread it. Into Great Silence is the better title. It’s different but I think it’s much better.”
The formal rigor and transcendent achievement of Gröning’s film has earned comparisons to the spiritually elevated minimalism of Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest) and other filmmakers including Andrei Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev), Carl Dreyer (Ordet), and the Dardennes (The Son).
What these filmmakers share, in part, is an aesthetic effort to approach the absolute first of all by stripping away the inessential, the superficial, the superfluous. Rather than relying on cinematic tricks to manipulate the emotions, they seek through cinematic restraint to engage the spirit, to leave the viewer room to ponder larger questions of meaning rather than simply responding to stimuli.
This approach is inherently contemplative, even ascetic. Gröning’s film is in the same spirit; in some ways, it might be described as the height of this elevated minimalism — pure cinema, untethered from the techniques of other art forms such as literature or theater.
There is structure in time, but no story to be told. There are recurring figures, but no character development or psychological insights. There is little speech, and almost no dialogue (the exception being a couple of scenes documenting the monks’ weekly excursions from the monastery when they are allowed to talk freely).
Images are not explained, and are not always self-explanatory. You won’t learn from the film that the Carthusian order was founded in the eleventh century by St. Bruno of Cologne, or that the “great silence” of the title refers to the discipline of silence during the night hours, which is stricter than during the day. You won’t learn that Carthusian monasteries are called charterhouses, or that there are nineteen of them around the world.
The film doesn’t tell you that the Carthusians leave their cells only three times a day, for liturgical offices and Mass, or that the monasteries receive no retreatants and no visitors, except family and relatives once or twice a year. You’ll see meals delivered to the cells through a P.O. box–like cubby hole, but you may not realize that (with the exception of the prior and the master of novices) the monks never enter one another’s cells. (Though they live in community, the Carthusians are more eremitical, or hermit-like, than other religious communities, with more emphasis on solitude and less time spent together.)
You’ll see the monks eating together in the refectory, but you may not realize that they do so only once a week, on Sundays, or that the special excursions from the monastery (spaciement), the one occasion they are allowed to speak freely amongst themselves, follow these weekly meals together in common.
So little concession does Gröning offer to intellectual curiosity that the one thing for which the Carthusians are best known — the green and yellow Chartreuse liqueurs the monks make to help support their monasteries — don’t even make an appearance.
“I took that out of the film,” Gröning said of the manufacture of the liqueurs. “It’s going to be on the DVD. It’s a different mode you get into as an audience, whether you’re looking at things and waiting for information, or whether you’re sort of abandoning yourself to your own experience.” Producing the liqueur, he added, is “in their own life of a very minor importance.” (Indeed, the Carthusian order’s website, which includes most of the information above, barely mentions the liqueur.)
This style of filmmaking makes demanding viewing, and takes some adjusting to. Yet as the film progresses, a mysterious thing happens. Like the rule of the monastery, which the monks experience as a path of joy and liberation and inner peace, the film’s very austerity becomes the bearer of something more. Almost imperceptibly, rigor and discipline are swallowed up in beauty, harmony and transcendence.
“This is what a monastery is,” Gröning said. “It’s getting rid of all the superfluous stuff, and then things become much more transparent — time becomes transparent, objects too. There’s this transparency, this inner freedom that comes, which is felt as joy, of course.”
Among other expressions of this dichotomy of rigor and liberation in the film are a pair of scriptural texts to which the film returns again and again. One is a gospel text emphasizing discipline and self-denial: is “He who does not give up everything cannot be My disciple.” The other is a prophetic utterance evoking ecstatic self-surrender: “You seduced me, O Lord, and I let myself be seduced.”
These two poles, Gröning observed, are “the field of tension in which monks live. On the one hand, you do have to and be very hard on yourself, and strict, and get rid of a lot of things. On the other hand, if you only follow this path of discipline, then you’re just a masochistic person and you’re not going to be a good monk either. So you have to have this other level of letting yourself go, letting yourself be seduced, and the balance between the two of them is sort of the eternal struggle… And this is very similar for us. We also have to find moments of discipline and structuring ourselves, and we also must find ways of abandoning ourselves to what life is. And the finding of that balance is one of the major human processes. So this is why I chose those two captions.”
The expression of this “major human process” through Old and New Testament scripture citations suggests both the universality and the specificity of the film. On the one hand, the monks “are very, very definitely Christian, very definitely Roman Catholic Christians,” in Gröning’s words. “They are diving into such depths of that religion, they are devoting their entire lifestyle to that religion.”
On the other hand, total personal devotion to a spiritual ideal often takes similar forms even in non-Christian contexts. “You’ve always had something like monks in all religions,” Gröning pointed out. “It’s like a common ground in which all religions seem to meet when you come down toward the deepest of symbols, when you come down to the purest sort of religious lifestyles. They seem to join there.”
To an extent, much of the film would translate quite well for Buddhist audiences, say. At the same time, the film bears the stamp of the specifically Christian, Catholic, and Western character of its subjects, and for audiences of similar heritage Gröning feels the film will have a special personal resonance.
“This is a film about contemplative life in Christian, Western culture,” he said. “So we can go into that much deeper than when we see a film about a Tibetan monastery. I don’t have memories of being a Tibetan monk at the age of four, because I wasn’t, you know? But I do have memories of a priest telling me something when I was six or seven. So a film that is showing the possibility of contemplation, meditation, inner peace, inner freedom in our culture, for people from a Western background, is something that’s going to be deeply moving.”
Almost the first sustained speech in the film is a chanted excerpt from St. Basil’s treatise on the Holy Spirit: a concise articulation of patristic Trinitarian theology. Highlights of the final hour include Eucharistic exposition, the celebration of Mass, and simple but piercing observations from a blind monk on Christian happiness, confidence in divine providence, and the tragedy of the loss of faith and meaning in the modern world.
In part, Gröning was drawn to this subject in an effort to better understand his own roots. “The original concept came about at a time when I felt that living in the monastery would do me good and I will sort of use the privilege of being a filmmaker to make a film at the same time,” he said. “I went there because I wanted to find out where I come from. I was brought up Catholic, and I wanted to find out what it is that influenced me so deeply in my life — in the sense that I was also very much against it for a very long time in my life.”
While still not a very orthodox Catholic (“The way you know that a religion is your religion is that you have problems with it,” he told Angela Zito in The Revealer), Gröning now professes a deeper appreciation and understanding of his spiritual heritage. “Pretty dark” is how he recalls the religious milieu of his boyhood, with much emphasis on “culpability and guilt and sin and all of that.” Among the monks, what struck him was that while they certainly had an awareness of culpability and sin, they were even more profoundly penetrated by a sense of “gratitude and grace and having escaped. This bright side of Christianity is something that I had never really understood before, so I was very grateful to do that.”
Gröning also cited the power of the monks’ example of living by faith. “Living with the monks,” he said, “the surprising thing was to see the amount of faith that they have — faith in the sense of trust, of completely trusting that they are like children in their mother’s arms. They feel like they are in the hands of God, and this is good. This is just something that’s going to go towards the best.”
Although penetrated by Catholic meaning, Into Great Silence can be a powerful experience for receptive viewers of diverse religious backgrounds, or even none. Unlike many films with religious subjects, Gröning’s film is not just of interest to those who share the faith in question, though those who do may find it an especially moving experience.
What enables a religiously themed film to connect with viewers of various perspectives? “From a filmmaker’s point of view,” Gröning reflected, “if you take seriously whatever you are looking at, if you take it really seriously, and you really wonder what it has to do with you, and if you research and expose yourself to that and leap into the void, and let the film become itself, then in the end you will have something that will be very universal, because it is so personal, and because it is in so much contact with the subject of the film.”
In the end, Into Great Silence is not simply about either spiritual rigor or inner peace. It is not even simply about faith. It is about nothing less than the object of faith, God himself. Many spiritually aware films, after the manner of Ecclesiastes, paint a picture of God largely in silhouette, through a sense of his felt absence, silence, or hiddenness rather than his presence. Into Great Silence movingly affirms the findability of God for those who truly seek him.
“What happens in a monastery,” Gröning said, “is that you realize that this sense of the absence of God in the world is a contradiction in itself, because the world — creation — is already an expression of a higher being. The closer you look at things, the more you realize that.”
For Gröning, this discovery was brought home with unexpected force by a potentially fatal accident: While shooting outdoors, he slipped and fell off a cliff. “I fell five and a half or six meters [18–20 feet] down,” he said. “I was lying on the ground, and I thought I was dead. I’d studied medicine, and I felt no pain, so I thought: Okay, half or six meters vertically down onto a layer of stones, no pain anywhere — that means your neck’s broken. Forty-five seconds and then it’s done.”
From this privileged vantage point at the bottom of the cliff, the director had an eye-opening encounter with the evidentiary power of beauty. “I was lying there and I was looking up, and I was so amazed by the beauty of the trees above me. And I really thought: It’s such a fantastic thing to live. And that’s a moment when I thought: This is more than just the random moving about of atoms. In beauty there is something that exceeds chance.”
Gröning walked away from that cliff with a lasting impression of divine providence. “Realizing later on that nothing had actually happened to me, it was an experience of realizing that you don’t die at the wrong moment. There is a certain logic to when that gets you. And this is good, because since then I’ve had this feeling that I was so afraid of dying, but I know that when it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen at the right moment.”
The film’s pleasures are revealed gradually. Among those earliest felt are its sublime beauty. The rugged splendor of the Swiss Alps and the architectural grandeur of the Grande Chartreuse offer a lot to work with. Gröning’s eye for detail and meticulous compositions create images of stunning virtuosity, inviting critical comparisons to Vermeer, among others.
“I’ve spent a lot of my life looking at paintings, maybe ten times more than looking at films,” the filmmaker confirmed. “As a small child, I was looking at Vermeers, because my mother used to drag me to those museums in Holland.” At the same time, he suggested that the kinship has as much to do with the monks as himself. “There’s no artificial light in the film, so whatever light you see is light that has been constructed by the monks. They have constructed their buildings in such a way that those effects occur. Of course, I have put the camera into positions where I could look at that in a good way. I was very influenced by paintings.”
As the film unfolds, individual sequences and various structural markers — repeated texts of scripture, portrait-like shots of individual monks, the routine of night prayer — take on an elusive, meditative shape, with connections that are poetic and circular rather than logical and linear.
“The film is so delicate that the smallest details make it fall apart or hold together,” Gröning believes. “I cannot tell you exactly what it is that keeps it going. I guess there’s a certain rhythm, there’s a usage of time, a cutting away or cutting into things that keeps you as the audience in a strange balance between spending the time with your own thoughts and being re-attracted to the screen again, and this balance just opens up the space for a therapeutic experience in the audience.”
The construction of the experience of the film begins with the opening shot: a dim, grainy, impressionistic image of the side of a monk’s head. At first he might appear to be sleeping, but eventually it becomes clear that he is on his knees praying in his cell. Presently he rises and stands briefly, and we wait expectantly to see what will follow. Then he sinks back to his knees and continues praying.
Commenting on this shot, Gröning said, “I chose in the end to start with this young monk, very close profile, praying, so that you would have to go through this long shot, long time, and see somebody who’s experiencing something. And that will help you as a viewer to accept the fact that you’re going on an inner voyage yourself, more than getting now all the information about how they make the liqueur and so on.”
The dimness of the shot was also a factor. “It takes a while to actually see what you see. It’s like getting used to the darkness when you come out of a bright room. For me this is a metaphor of what a monastery is. You go into a place, and it takes you awhile for your senses to open, and for your senses to feel the presence of what is there. And then it starts. And so I feel that this is leading you into the film in an appropriate way.”
Repetition and recurrence are crucial aspects of the film’s construction. Like a litany, the film returns again and again to the same scripture texts, the same places, the same themes.
“Contemplative life is sort of the opposite side of the mirror of active life,” Gröning said. “In active life you try to do things, and explore, and get more and more information, and so on. In contemplative life you look at the same thing over and over again, and try to get to deeper insights by explicitly looking at the same, instead of looking at the different. So this is why I chose some repetition.”
Yet there is also a sense of unfolding, of revelation. The film moves from winter through spring and summer and back to winter, but the experience of the second winter is profoundly different from the first.
The first winter is bleak, and the gradual arrival of spring is experienced as a liberation. A sense of freedom pervades the film as the snow melts and the world comes to life. Summer comes with an unfolding of delight. Yet when winter comes again to the mountains, the sense of bleakness does not return with the snows. The liberation of summer cannot be frozen again. Indeed, some of the film’s most sublime joys come in the last hour.
“I’m very happy you said that,” Gröning said when this came up. “That was one of the elements that was clear from the start… I’m trying to get the viewer into the experience of what a monastery is. A monastery is something that is letting go of things in the beginning, letting go of more and more things, and then a certain liberty and a certain joy will come up. So it was important that the second winter, after having suffered — because there are moments that are difficult for the audience — so the second winter, after the therapy of the film, would be the liberated winter. This is what the monastery is about — the longer you are in there, the more joyful it becomes.”
Indeed, perhaps the most extraordinary moment in the film is a late sequence of astonishing playfulness, with the monks frolicking in the snow. This sequence, Gröning revealed, was actually filmed early in his first visit, but he knew right away that he wanted it at the end of the film, in the “liberated winter.”
“It’s not chronological,” he said. “Some of the shots I begin with were shot right toward the beginning, but some were shot right toward the end… This is a documentary film, and I think it’s one of the strictest documentaries you can imagine. But chronology is not such an important thing in a monastery, where things are moving in circles anyway.”
The near absence of language in the film, Gröning believes, is an integral part of its transcendent, transforming quality. “Language has an interesting phenomenon that it’s taking you away from the moment,” the director contended. “It’s a semiological fact that if you want to understand a sentence, you must remember the beginning of it by the time it’s coming to its end, which means that the absolute present is already destroyed when you’re in the language level.” One could, indeed, argue the same point as regards longer units as well: speeches, dialogues, conversations, and scenes built around language.
Because of this, Gröning believed that “in the absence of language the present moment would become such a strong, strong thing… so much stronger than in the presence of language… And this is also what a monastery is about. It was totally intermarried: making a film about a monastery, about silence, about time. All of this is actually one. This is the lucky constellation of this film, that it all falls into place.”
The sense of an enduring present is, indeed, such a strong element that the film takes on a timeless, suspended quality. (A friend and colleague of mine described a sensation of “floating” while watching the film.)
In fact, Gröning was concerned about viewers beginning to feel as if the monastery were a world in which time has come to a stop, in which eternity has been realized on earth. “I was afraid that the harmony of time in the monastery would make the audience think that this is a place where everything is resolved, right? Where people live for thousands of years, the same kind of life, as if you wouldn’t die. But still you die, of course.”
Signs of frailty, mortality and corruption are not lacking in the film. Disciplined as they are, the monks rub tired eyes, mop sweat from their brows, pause to catch their breath. There is coughing during worship. An aged monk receives medical treatment, and the blind monk discusses facing the inevitability of death without fear. The buzzing of flies can be heard in several scenes. Occasional use of grainy Super‑8 footage, in contrast with the pristine high-definition digital video used elsewhere, was meant, the filmmaker indicated, to evoke “the fragility of time.”
Toward the end of Gröning’s stay at the Grande Chartreuse, the monks asked him (in notes, probably) what he had learned from them. The question came as a surprise to Gröning, who had “drifted away from speech by then” that he hadn’t worked out his ideas in words.
Eventually, he said, “I realized that what I had actually learned was that it is possible to live very much without fear, because this is what they do. They live without fear. I wanted the audience to be able to share this.”
What can a film about cloistered monks living in silence and contemplation have to say to our overcaffeinated, information-saturated, mass-media, 24/7 world? A great deal, Gröning believes.
“I didn’t want the audience to come out feeling that, oh, they are so lucky — they live up in the mountains, and they can play about in the snow, but I have to go to the office,” he said. “I wanted the audience to understand that this is a question of attitude. You can take decisions on this. You can take a decision as to whether you think life is going to be something that makes sense in the end, and have trust, or you can choose to live on fear.”
At the same time, Gröning believes that the monastic ideal has particular relevance regarding a number of social ills. “Our society is so unhappy — we’re the richest society that ever existed on earth, and yet still people are unhappy,” he said. “And some of this comes from the fact that we’re totally overwhelming ourselves all the time by demanding that we design our own personality, design our own plan for life, achieve that plan for life, and then be happy on top of that. And this is just an overwhelming thing. This is too much — this is much more than a human being can do.”
The director also believes viewers may gain a sense of perspective from the voluntary poverty of the monks. “A common reading is that our society is based on material goods. Now the deeper reading is that our society is based on fear, and fear is being hidden by material goods… The dogma of work, efficiency, having a job, etc., being the core human value of a human being is very much challenged by their way of life, because in their way of life work is not such an essential issue.”
In Europe, Gröning believes, the issue of employment has been blown out of proportion. “Everyone’s very afraid… do we have a job? Do our children have jobs? … Western society is not based on the idea of work. You look at those monks, who still live as they did 800 years ago, and it’s not a big issue in their life.”
Ultimately, the silence of the monks may have different things to say to different viewers. “In a certain sense you might say that it’s a film about the viewer, just like a monastery is not a place where you’re supposed to learn about a monastery, it’s a place where you’re supposed to learn about yourself.”
Into Great Silence offers viewers that opportunity in a way comparable to vanishingly few films — perhaps vanishingly few experiences of any sort. To watch this film receptively is a transforming experience — one that will leave viewers in an altered state, looking at the world in a different way, perhaps contemplating changes they might make in their lives to accommodate in small ways the spirit of what they have experienced. In our post-everything Western world, it’s a wholly unexpected witness to the continuing power of the historic structures of our shared Christian heritage to speak to us today.