From DOK Leipzig to Sundance — Philipp Gröning’s Die Grosse Stille

It’s one of the finest religious documentaries ever made — Philipp Gröning’s Die Grosse Stille (The Great Silence) (Germany). According to Gröning, he waited 14 years to receive permission to film inside the Grande Carthreuse, the famous monastery at Grenoble that’s also known for a liqueur distilled by lay brothers associated with the contemplative monks. Founded by St. Bruno in 1084 in the valley of Chartreuse, the Carthusians were leaders in the monastic-reform movement of the 11th and 12th centuries. Within the walls of their monastery, they live the solitary life of hermits in individual cells, where they pray and work, leaving only to join in communal services in the chapel and the refectory. On Sundays they eat together, and once a week they take walks for a period of conversation.

Thanks to a special dispensation given to Philipp Gröning by the abbot, we can experience in close-up the routine of life within the walls of a Carthusian monastery. Without commentary, without musical interludes, without interviews (save for an old monk expressing a peaceful contentment as death nears). We see, we feel, we experience the life of silence — indeed, the great silence, for hardly a word in spoken in the film. We become acquainted with individuals — at regular intervals we can study the very countenance of these men of contemplation. We can follow their daily tasks in individual cells, where in solitude they also pray, study, eat, and sleep. A monk pulls a bell from the roof of the chapel to call the monks to chant the night office, the mass, the vespers. On Sundays and great feastdays, they enjoy a period of conversation. Once a week, they take a long walk together.

For Philipp Gröning — as producer, director, cameraman, screenwriter, and editor — to receive permission to film inside the monastery is an achievement in itself. That he was able to make a film that thrives on silence for the greater part of 164 minutes singles him out as a remarkable individual with a singular gift for sharing trust and confidence. »What interested me was the essence of a timeless way of life that radiates a profound calm and conviction in its constant repetition of work and prayer,« said Gröning. »And a timelessness that irritates modern reason and understanding.« Indeed, The Great Silence is just what it purports to be: the pulse-taking of a religious order that has existed without noticeable change or necessary reform for nearly a thousand years.

Two moments stand out on the communicative side. The first shows the monks in summer walking to an alcove, where one asks another when he will be leaving for Seoul — to found a monastery in Korea, it turns out. The other shows the monks in winter as they walk up a snow-covered hillside, then slide down on their sandals like children — a way of praising God for the very beauty of nature. The Great Silence, in which the countenances of the monks play a central role, is a film that can be seen over and over again. Perhaps one has to be an advocate of the ascetic-aesthetic side of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, and Andrei Tarkovsky to feel that a two-and-a-half-hour screening is simply far too short. The Great Silence was voted »Film of the Month« by the Swiss Catholic Media Service and the Reformed Media Service. It has been invited to the Sundance film festival.

Ron Holloway