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Thread: Philip Gröning: Into Great Silence (2006)

  1. #1
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    Philip Gröning: Into Great Silence (2005)

    Philip Gröning: Into Great Silence (2005)

    Bare contemplation

    Review by Chris Knipp

    If you can sit still for the nearly three hours of this film, it's almost guaranteed to bring down your heart rate, maybe make you want to spend more time in the high mountains or in the snow or contemplating spring flowers in some isolated place. Into Great Silence (Die Große Stille) is a documentary of unusual austerity and beauty, like La Grande Chartreuse itself, the Carthusian order's central monastery high in the French Alps that German filmmaker Philip Gröning has recorded. His film is steeped in a unique atmosphere; there is no narration. To have provided any would have interrupted the prevailing silence that is characteristic of the place. This method -- the withholding of all commentary -- can work fine for a documentary, especially where there is a lot of dialogue, as in the recent, highly admired Iraq in Fragments; or where the activities shown are familiar, such as the classroom scenes so meticulously filmed in Être et avoir (To Be and to Have), an un-narrated chronicle of a rural French elementary school. But lovely and calming as Into Great Silence is, it preserves the atmosphere at the cost of failing to penetrate its subjects' inner lives. How well can we ever understand spirituality? But above all, how well can we understand it from visuals, without any words describing the inner experience?

    There are other specifics that Gröning, who was forced to work virtually alone and without any artificial light, chooses not to detail. A monk's life is rigorously organized, but here that schedule isn't specified. Editing flits about arbitrarily between shots of monks praying alone or in the chapel, external landscape shots; shots of wood being chopped, food being prepared or delivered to cells, snow being shoveled, robes being made, heads being shaved, books being read at cell desks. And there's an initiation ritual, plain chants, poetically blurry close-ups of candle flames or fruit. There's even a moment of laughter and high spirits when a group of younger monks slide down a hillside in the snow (in their boots, without skis or snowboards). Bells sound, and the monks bustle about from one activity to another, but according to what system is left to the imagination. In one shot a monk sits in front of a big desk strewn with bills and documents. He just stares at them. What does it mean? Several times the succession of scenes is interrupted with a short series of shots of individual monks staring into the camera, wordlessly, of course. There is one long shot of a monk who may be dying. He too stares into the camera. These moments are rather spooky. Despite the presence of prescription eyeglasses, shoe goo, electricity for lights and an electric razor in the "Razora" room -- even, despite wood stoves in the cells, the sighting of a single radiator -- the place has a thoroughly medieval feel, and that's spooky too. Every so often in large letters in French there is a saying of Jesus, such as "Celui d’entre vous qui ne renonce pas à tous ses biens, ne peut pas être mon disciple" ("He among you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple") flashed on the screen, as in a silent film, and these are repeated, randomly. But again, is this randomness appropriate in depicting a life that is anything but haphazard in its structure?

    After an hour the film shows that the monks, though they lead daily lives that are silent and isolated except for chapel services, do also get together on Sundays for a communal meal followed by a walk and a chat, rain or shine. When given this opportunity, they don't analyze the world situation. They discuss minutiae of the order's regulations. Later, a blind old monk with impressive down-drooping eyebrows is the only one to address the camera directly. He speaks of blindness and death, describing both as welcome gifts from God, one received, another still to come.

    There is a significant omission. This place, begun in the early eleventh century, rebuilt in the seventeenth, produces a famous liqueur whose sale supports it; but we don't see the monks doing this work. Gröning says the process is too complicated and would distract from the rest. Distract from what? From the effect he wants to create; not from a picture of what the place is about.

    Gröning underlines the uniquely rare opportunity he's sharing with us by explaining at the end that he asked for permission to film in 1984, but was held off from doing so till 2000. Maybe he thought since he had to wait so long, he should make a long film. But the extra time doesn't mean deeper insight. At most it is the prolongation of a mood. Rather it seems an outgrowth of the random editing system, an unwillingness or inability to cut or to organize. Off-putting and tight-lipped though this film is, it will no doubt stand as one of the more distinctive of recent documentaries. But it inspires as much irritation as reverence. It's not utterly clear that Gröning is the ultimate guide to this world -- or to any world, for that matter.

    There are many paradoxes and ambiguities in a monastic existence. The Carthusian order is austere. Its life is one of renunciation and penitence. In this austerity there is a certain luxury. The monks choose it willingly. If they can stick with it (many apparently don't), it is what they want, an ideal setting for the uninterrupted contemplation of God. And it is a peaceful life, a safe life, a life cut off from the worries of cities and families and all uncertainty. Monks don't prepare their weekday meals in their cells any more; they're brought on a cart. Bare and spare and strict though it is, La Grande Chartreuse is in some sense the most spectacular of grand hotels.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-30-2007 at 12:47 PM.

  2. #2
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    I agree with Rob Mackie of the Guardian who wrote as follows last December about the film:

    It is certainly a film of great seriousness, but one about which I sometimes felt agnostic. The interior shots appear to have been achieved on digital video with whatever light was available - which wasn't much. So the indoor scenes are exasperatingly muddy and don't convey much sense of its space, and the monks' musical life might moreover have been captured with more passion. The monks spend a long, long time in silence, so the film is long, long and mostly quiet. It is a film that expects to be congratulated on its own asceticism, but to my eye there is arguably just literalness and pedantry here, or even a deficiency of imaginative engagement. However, there are definitely moments of poetry and sweetness, and it is a notable achievement, years in the making.
    Grüning was uniquely privileged, and this is a subject of great interest. It's important to recognize that there were many other ways this might have been done that could have been more informative.

  3. #3
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    INTO GREAT SILENCE (Germany/France)

    Into Great Silence documents the daily routine of 24 men who have joined a monastic order to dedicate their lives to praising and relating to God. Director Philip Groning has an ambitious goal: to provide the viewer a feel for what it's like to lead the reclusive life of a christian monk; to turn the experience of sitting in a theater watching images for 3 hours into something spiritual and meditative. The method is, correspondingly, ascetic, devoid of distracting external impositions like a music score or talking heads.

    The men pray, sing psalms, cook, shovel snow, read, attend Mass, plant seeds, etc. Once a week they have dinner together ("to experience the joys of family life") and go out for an invigorating walk in the woods. The film is structured into 8 parts which begin with close-up portraits of three of the monks punctuated by recurring titles that serve as incantations or mantras. These two are used with most frequency:

    "O Lord, you have seduced me and I allowed myself to be seduced"

    "Only he who gives everything up can be my disciple"

    Groning also pays rapt attention to the natural environment surrounding the cloister and to the stillness and sameness of the structure and the way of life experienced therein. Into Great Silence is the rare film that has the potential to have a transformative effect on the viewer, especially younger ones. Watching it is a highly subjective experience because of its decidedly non-directive approach. I found myself meditating about 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who advocated an approach to living based on passionate inwardness. I also found myself thinking about more banal aspects, such as the fact that there are no mirrors to be found anywhere. This made me wonder if the monks who've lived there for decades have forgotten what their face looks like.

    It's hard to think of any other movie I've seen that can be compared to Groning's film. The one that comes remotely close is a long film Alexandr Sokurov made in the 90s about the lonely plight of soldiers guarding the desolate border between Russia and Afghanistan. I feel especially lucky to have seen Into Great Silence in a theater. Its effect would be diluted by any distraction, such as the ones found at home, or by watching it in parts. Total immersion is required.

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