(Die Grosse Stille)

Directed by Philip Groning. Germany. 2005.

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A 160-minute silent German movie has been packing the cinemas of continental Europe. Not some revived expressionist masterpiece from the 1920s, but a documentary completed in 2005 about life among the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps. The “silence” refers to the fact that, throughout nearly all of their day, they do not speak. The film most certainly has a soundtrack, but spoken dialogue is rare.

I first saw Into Great Silence (Die Grosse Stille) at a cinema in Belgium, where it had been running for 8 weeks; not one of the 10 other films then showing had run for longer. Its director, Philip Groning, had wanted to make this film in the early 1980s, but permission was refused by the abbot, who did not want the intrusion of lighting and sound technology. 20 years later DV technology and a new multi-track recording device made it possible to shoot in near-darkness and without a sound recordist, so Groning and his crew lived among the monks for a year or so, filming their daily lives without comment or voiceover.

The location is starkly beautiful, the changing seasons being portrayed in all their contrasts. The film appears to begin and end in winter; snow is falling at the start, while towards the end, in what is obviously a time of recreation, we see the monks joyfully sliding down a slippery hillside like gleeful children.

But the film’s real beauty lies in the daily rituals and tasks of the monks themselves. A solitary monk kneels in the dark, save for flickering candles; the communal mealtime, where one monk reads aloud from the Bible or other spiritual writing; the daily walk when normal conversation is permitted. There are also the more “one-off” events: a novice being measured for his new habit, and his initiation ceremony; a monk talking to the cats; the shaving of heads; cows which appear to have wandered into the cloister. Sections of the film are punctuated with written texts (in French, with German subtitles, and in the version I saw with Dutch sub-subtitles also!). Each of these texts is followed by shots of three monks, one after another, looking straight to camera.

The shooting was done in two formats, the high-definition digital video already mentioned and, in several scenes, what appears to be Super-8, giving a barely visible image. The purpose of this would appear to be to represent the interplay between time and eternity.

To call Into Great Silence a silent film would be a gross misnomer. It is actually quite noisy: the turning of a book’s pages, birdsong, burning logs, even a fly buzzing around. When we are used in much of our daily lives to incessant noise, these sounds become surprisingly predominant.

In Belgium I saw the film with an audience of about 50 people; I saw it again in London, where there were about 100. One could have heard a pin drop throughout; everybody was rapt, and the 160 minutes seemed like 60. Into Great Silence is not narrative cinema, and is certainly nobody’s idea of an action movie. But equally certainly, it has proved to have a wide appeal, for those prepared to open themselves to its mysteries.

Alan Pavelin
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