Into Great Silence

“Into the Silence” is an extraordinary film, not only for its direction and production, but for its wonderful portrayal of the reality of the monastic and eremitical life. The film portrays what is essentially the superficially mundane routine of the life – praying, reading, eating, cutting firewood – but (without attempts at explanation or interpretation – or any words at all!) reveals the spiritual purpose and intensity beneath. Unlike some documentaries on the monastic life which have a “marketing feel” to them, this documentary makes no attempt to promote or justify or analyse: it simply shows.
great silence 4
“”Into Great Silence “(German: Die Große Stille) is a documentary film directed by Philip Gröning that was first released in 2005. It is an intimate portrayal of the everyday lives of Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse, high in the French Alps (Chartreuse Mountains). The idea for the film was proposed to the monks in 1984, but the Carthusians said they wanted time to think about it. The Carthusians finally contacted Gröning 16 years later to say they were now willing to permit Gröning to shoot the movie, if he was still interested. Gröning then came alone to live at the monastery, where no visitors were ordinarily allowed, for four and a half months starting in mid-March 2002. He filmed and recorded the sound on his own, using no artificial light. Additional shooting of the documentary took place in December and January; Gröning spent a total of six months filming in the monastery and took about two and a half years to edit the film before its release. The film has neither commentary nor sound effects added, consisting only of images and sounds of the rhythm of monastic life.”
great silence 3
“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 re-editing, 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.”
great silence 7
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.”
Great-Silence 2
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.””
great silence 8
“For those who like their entertainment snappy, expect some discomfort. What is unusual in this film about silence and contemplation is that the passage of time is undivided by filters or markers. We sit inside it, as in physical space, more than we are swept along by it. What Gröning wants to explore is something that has been marginalised by the market pressures of the industry: the capacity for cinema, at some primal level, to entrance, to open us to an ecstatic engagement with the film-as-lyric. His film reactivates some of the old magic of this newest of art forms: that moment when utter peace and letting go descend upon us, collectively, in the dark of the multiplex….
The whole of Into Great Silence works in this way. The smallest elements become energised, and the narrative of everyday things begins to take on a kind of supercharged intensity. Thus, when some of the monks, on their customary Sunday walk outside the monastery grounds, slide down a steep snowdrift using their shoes as rudimentary skis and tumble in a heap of delighted giggling at the bottom of the run, it seems a hilariously transgressive moment. As for the other 159 minutes: what becomes intriguing about these men is their deep level of acceptance, if for nothing else than the unchanging rhythms of the days. They eat, they pray, they chant, as if to do otherwise, or to do anything more, would be to crowd their lives with inessentials….
There is also in Into Great Silence a sense of intensity and expansiveness co-existing, of an intimate immensity and a deeply felt obsession contained within a great vastness. Kurosawa’s late-career film Dersu Uzala captured this sense of vastness out in the Siberian wastes: the expanse in that film was spatial, and raised the hairs on the neck. For the monks of the Grande Chartreuse, the expanse that they live with and within is temporal, but no less intimidating for that. They are, like Dersu, in some sense travellers in the Outlands.”
great silence 5
Extraordinarily for such an unusual film on such an unusual topic, “Into the Silence” has won a considerable number of awards.

The official website for the documentary is at
great silence 6
An interview with Philip Groning on ABC TV can be found at

For more on the Carthusians, see and (which is the website of St Hugh’s Charterhouse in England).
For more on Carthusian spirituality, see and


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: