French theorists used to employ the term “pure cinema” to describe film as an entirely new art form of moving images. It struck directly at the senses and created its own experience, without reliance on older forms like literature, painting, music or photography. The theory provided the basis for an interesting aesthetic of cinema, but the practice revealed its shortcomings. Most of the examples they cited, like Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera” (1928), a series of seemingly random shots of Moscow during a summer afternoon, or Andy Warhol’s experimental films, like “Empire” (1964), a six-hour view of the Empire State Building taken from a single camera angle, test the patience of all but the most dedicated film scholar. Take away narrative line, characters, musical score, dialogue, voice-over explanations, a message and not much remains to hold the attention.
Into Great Silence (“Die Grosse Stille”) not only holds the attention; it mesmerizes. Philip Gröning spent several months, from spring to fall, filming at La Grande Chartreuse, the Carthusian charterhouse, or monastery, hidden in the French Alps. He does to his film what the monks have done to their lives: strips away everything superfluous to get down to the barest essentials. By abandoning all that appeals to the intellect he leads his viewers into an experience much like the deepest forms of mystical prayer. One has to enter into the silence with the monks, and let the stillness take effect on its own terms. He makes no attempt to explain their lives, much less justify them. After spending almost three hours in this state of quiet observation, viewers may not find words adequate to describe their reaction, and perhaps they might not even want to search for them.
The film begins with an image scarcely perceptible. As the eye becomes accustomed to the darkness, it makes out the outline of a monk in his medieval habit, kneeling in prayer. He turns to adjust a window behind him and returns to his prie-dieu. The scene shifts without comment to an external shot of the sky. After filling the screen with a pure blue, the camera gradually sharpens focus on falling snow. The flakes are huge, like feathers from a ruined pillow. This is one of those heavy, wet spring snows that smoothes every surface and swallows every sound. The exterior snowfall underscores the interior quietude of the man at prayer. No commentary points this out, but through pure images, slowly and imperceptibly, silence and reverence fuse in the mind.
Time takes on an unearthly dimension in this world. In effect, it has no meaning at all. In the relentless, endlessly repetitive world of the monastery, routine supplants achievement. Nothing is rushed; everything is deliberate. The chant of their office strolls forward in measured pace as though no one has reason to finish it. Indeed they don’t. Their time is measured by the bell that summons them seven times each day to the liturgy of hours. In this cyclic movement of their lives, finishing one lesson simply prepares the way for the next. It is never finished. They don’t even look forward to a night’s rest at the end of their labors, since they rise after a few hours to begin another cycle of prayer. Can contemporary filmgoers slow to this pace? It is a challenge.
The monks inhabit a highly symbolic universe that outsiders also find alien, but it becomes a lovely dwelling place once one dares to leave the ordinary, utilitarian world behind. The slightest gesture becomes a ritual. They stand and kneel at their private prayer, with a slow and generous sign of the cross marking the beginning and end. When they gather for common prayer, the hood of their habits must be raised or lowered at the appropriate moment. A tailor cuts his cloth and selects buttons as though he were performing a sacred rite, for in fact he is. Dicing celery for soup, delivering meals to the individual cells, chopping wood, dusting the sanctuary, resoling a boot, shoveling snow from the vegetable patch with gloveless hands to prepare for an early planting, all these tasks become part of a life of sacred liturgy.
Even the cells where the monks spend most of their day become sacred space, no less than the choir or the sanctuary. In this sacred space, where they appear to retreat into their privacy untouched by the outside world, they find the freedom to open themselves most to their inner selves where they allow God to touch them profoundly. Where they seem most protected, they are in fact most vulnerable. Gröning captures the sacredness of this space with a loving attention to detail and a delicacy in using the low winter light from the windows that suggests the Flemish masters: a wooden bowl filled with fruit, a perfect apple split on a cloth napkin, a loaf of bread resting in the drawer of a cabinet, a battered metal bowl draining by the side of a sink.
Even though the film invites one to step into the frame of a magnificently designed still life, the monks retain their humanity. At several instances the camera provides simple close-up portraits of the individual men who have chosen this style of life. They look into the camera without gesture or expression. Neither madmen nor religious fanatics, and possibly not even saints, they are simply men, and the film invites, even challenges, its viewers to plumb the mystery of their lives. Two postulants put on the habit for the first time and undergo a simple ceremony of reception surrounded by other monks. What leads men to embrace a way of life that might have made sense a thousand years ago? Twice, as the camera looks skyward, a jet airliner silently passes five miles overhead. Again, the images make the point without words.
Gröning finds a core of humanity in this otherworldly existence. In his cell, one of the postulants practices his chant with the help of a simple keyboard. He struggles with the notes. In a bare room that serves as a barber shop, the monks have their heads shaved. After the barber sets aside the electric clippers, he carefully brushes the loose hair from their scalps. A younger monk completes the process by rinsing his head under a spigot. The infirmarian applies salve to the back of an older monk, but the film reveals nothing of reason for the treatment. These are simply human beings serving the ordinary needs of their bodies.
In one of the very rare instances of dialogue, near the end of the film, an elderly monk describes his blindness as a gift from God and shares his reflections on death, which he anticipates as another gift. Of themselves, the words offer nothing profound or illuminating, and in fact the cynical could dismiss them as little more than pious cliché. But after seeing how this man has lived, the words take on a meaning much larger than their syntax.
The great silence really teems with humanity, once one learns to listen. The hard-soled work shoes resound on the bare boards of the monastery. Doors open and close, kneelers scuff the floor, pages turn, a coarse rag scrapes across a newly washed bowl, a cart rattles along the stone floor. In the background, one hears an electric saw but sees nothing of it. And always there is the bell. All these are merely sounds of the human enterprise of men whose lives are directed toward eternity as they work their way through time. They demand and receive no explanation.
“Into Great Silence” has few prospects for release in many theaters. It’s too long and far too slow for audiences addicted to explosions, fireballs and car chases. Zeitgeist films in New York, however, will soon release a DVD version that will make this stunning film available for private use. Perhaps some television stations may run it during their periodic search for religious programming to run during the Christmas and Easter seasons. Even so, the small screen scarcely does justice to the richly textured images. No matter where it is seen, “Into Great Silence” is one of those rare films to rise toward contemplation.