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Issue 25

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Into Great Silence

(Philip Gröning, Germany)

Foreknowledge can be a useful tool for a critic, at least when it’s employed to sharpen one’s perceptions rather than simply dye them a deeper hue of jade. Knowing exactly which notes a given film will hit can deepen the resonance of those notes, when they’re struck by artists who understand and honour the weight of their material. This sense of expectancy is applicable not only to those filmmakers with whom we’re intimately familiar, whose cadences we’ve become attuned to, but also, occasionally, to some we’ve yet to encounter. I’d like to think that my prescient feeling about Philip Gröning’s exquisite Into Great Silence, a three-hour and nearly dialogue-less portrait of the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps, had more to it than a familiarity with the capsule description. The experience portended seemed to be inscribed beforehand, the unspooling of the film itself simply the means of bringing it to light.

A surprise, then, that this was evoked by a filmmaker who has apparently made an ethic out of erraticism, both in content and style. Summer (1986), a black-and-white film about a father trying to connect with his autistic child, was succeeded by The Terrorists (1992), a “political grotesque,” and the lovers-on-the-run tale L’amour, l’argent, l’amour (2000), in amongst various shorts, documentaries, and occasional acting work. Despite this haphazard career path, Gröning has brought to Into Great Silence a deliberateness and purpose which illuminates his profound identification with his subject, a kinship which finds both aesthetic and ethic within the manner of life it examines, or rather, exists with.

This is the dilemma which Gröning inadvertently poses to our current milieu of serious critics and enthusiasts: the subject from which his film draws its rhythms, its very meaning, is not only alien (a point of celebration rather than trepidation for the right-thinking), but deeply unfashionable, if not excoriated. We prefer our faith to be socially engaged, when we prefer it at all, and the monks of the Carthusian order—an almost purely contemplative sect, in which even the bonds of the religious community appear to take second place to the individual’s communion with God—exemplify the kind of withdrawal from the world which few in our determinedly secular ranks could find the rationale to justify. A retreat into the welcoming arms of aestheticization can only address a facet of the film’s being. The play of light and darkness, of sound and silence, of space and enclosure which delimits the lives of the monks is inseparable from the injunction which they have taken upon themselves, and Gröning’s masterly control of pace, texture, and framing derives from an immersion in and adjustment to the forces which these men both create and subject themselves to. Any external critical project must subordinate itself to the fact that this way of life exists, and in existing merits our attention and understanding. What we do with those afterwards is our own affair.

Yet it is one of the great achievements of Into Great Silence that it turns our thinking away from terms of “afterwards,” or “before.” It is a film of and about an absolute sense of present, a calm and stillness created by—not in spite of—the heedless fleeting of time. “There’s no such thing as being out of your own time,” says Gröning. “This is why I moved away from language, because language is completely based on time: you have to remember the beginning of the phrase to get to the end of the phrase. It’s always cutting you off from that pure present.” Thus the principal use of language in the film, the textual reiteration of fragments of prayers, serves not as explication, but as incantation; a searching for truth not through narrative revelation but meditative concentration, an intense focus upon the plainness of the language. As in word, so in action: the rigours of the monastic order, as Gröning shows, are directed towards the evident rather than the hidden. The simplicity and repetition, the routine and functionality of the monks’ existence, serves not to draw them away from the world but to affirm their place within it; to be aware of themselves, explains Gröning, and knowing that “by being aware of themselves, they are in the face of God.”

Absolute time thus translates to absolute space—a heightened sense of present corresponds to a heightened sense of placement. And thus this film about seclusion and solitude becomes about connectedness and unity, the whole found through and in the singular: “I am the ONE who is,” declares the text as Gröning presents frontal portraits of the monks, confronting the camera’s eye with their own (direct, hesitant, unworried, uncomfortable, uncomprehending, uninterested, defiant, blind) gaze. Gröning says that these portraits arose from his own feelings of alienation from the life with which he and his camera were confronted: “I thought that the only way to resolve that was to have the monks sit for these portraits, because it’s no longer this voyeuristic situation: it’s camera and monk, both against each other, a way for them to get to know each other. And by breaking that distance in a very simple way, it’s also a world starting to form.” A world, indeed: our world, as a matter of fact. Gröning’s masterful intercutting of the signs of life which surround the monastery—cars passing on the road, tour groups walking through the fields, a plane flying overhead, even the computer with which one monk keeps the order’s monthly accounts—connects this life we view to the life we know. This is not a matter of an “archaic” mode of life contrasted to our “modern” world: this life we see is happening now, and thus both of these lives, both of these worlds, are “modern,” which is also to say that neither of them is—or rather that such distinctions are immaterial within the determinedly material plane they share.

Perhaps this is the source of Into Great Silence’s simultaneous familiarity and fascination. The film seizes upon our commonplace awareness of our own bodies and those other bodies, fleshly or otherwise, which surround it, and conveys how strange and marvelous that awareness is: Gröning tells of a friend who, after seeing the film, commented that he’d never before realized just how much noise he made going about the simplest of tasks. The radical asceticism, the ritual and singularity of purpose which Gröning depicts channels into our own experiences by virtue of the sensory and sensual language which they share, the moment-by-moment phenomenon of existing in the world. “I think this is the highest thing that the film could do, to bring you to your own present,” says Gröning. “Maybe in this extreme, ritualized form of life, one might get a much clearer vision of just how individual people are.” The utter conviction of Gröning’s subjects in the rightness of the world—voiced, in the film’s only interview, by a blind, deaf, and debilitated monk who faces his infirmities with a placid serenity—is mirrored in the simple and sublime achievement of his film: telling us things we already know with an eloquence that makes us appreciate the depth and import of that knowledge.

—Andrew Trac


Articles in this Section

Into Great Silence
By Andrew Tracy

By Shelly Kraicer

Tale of Cinema
By Michael Sicinski

Web only

Vers le sud
By Martin Tsai

By Adam Nayman

and in the magazine..

The Pusher Trilogy
By Joel McConvey

Linda Linda Linda
By Chuck Stephens

Brothers of the Head
By Jason Anderson

Dark Horse
By Jay Kuehner

Drawing Restraint 9
By David Balzer

À travers la forêt
By Robert Koehler