His monastery documentary brings order to life
NEW YORK -- When German filmmaker Philip Gröning was invited by the nearly 1,000-year-old Carthusian order of monks to become the first outsider allowed to film inside the Grand Chartreuse, one of the world's most ascetic monasteries, nestled deep in the French Alps, he sought to avoid the devices of conventional documentary filmmaking.
The resulting work, "Into Great Silence," which opens Friday , has no voice - over commentaries, no interviews, no archival footage, no score , and little dialogue. Gröning shot the film without a crew and used no artificial light. The film provides no history or background on the Carthusians -- considered the Catholic Church's strictest order, it was founded by Saint Bruno of Cologne in 1084 -- and the filmmaker offered no glimpses into the personalities or histories of any of the monks.
Instead, the austere, 162-minute film, with its sublime, painterly images and ambient sounds, is contemplative, meditative , and intensely introspective, capturing the poetic, unhurried rhythms of everyday life in the monastery. Gröning, who directed, produced, shot , and edited the film, sought to collapse the dividing line between the screen and the audience, immersing viewers into the world of the monastery and allowing them the opportunity to surrender to the rituals and repetitions of its inhabitants and the changing seasons that occur outside the windows of the stone charterhouse.
"The film does not depict a monastery, but it transforms itself into a monastery, because a monastery is a place where, through the rhythm of time, which is very strict, and through [the monk's] confinement, the spiritual space is opened up for them," explains Gröning, over a cup of tea at a quiet Tribeca cafe after a late-afternoon photo shoot.
Dressed casually in cargo pants, sweater , and hiking boots, the boyish, thoughtful 47-year-old compares the enclosed world of cinema to the hermetic world of a monastery and says he used that parallel in making "Into Great Silence," which earned a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006.
"Cinema is a space that completely excludes all outside influences, and it's the only medium that completely controls the time of the audience," he says. "You have sound and image, but mostly you have editing, and editing is like the structuring of time. And if you manage to get rid of the elements that distract from this basic power of editing -- such as a plot, narration , and other information -- the space opens up for the viewer."
The idea for a film about a monastery struck Gröning in 1984. He had long considered himself something of a reclusive artist, and had also developed interests in philosophy and astrophysics. "I lived a sort of romantic artistic life. I had this habit of really being on my own and writing and doing photography and pretty much being withdrawn," he says. "After I finished my first film, I was thinking that it would be good for me to go to a silent monastery and sort of re-center myself."
And as a filmmaker, he was intrigued about documenting monastic life. So he began researching different orders of monks -- from the Trappists to the Camaldolese -- and was eventually invited to stay, but not film, for 10 days among an order of Carthusians in the south of France in 1986. At the end of his visit, the prior of the monastery said that he thought the filmmaker had a worthy project on his hands; however, the prior felt that his community of monks was "off-balance" at that time, and he told Gröning that they could talk about the project again in "another 10 to 13 years."
"We were like: 'OK, this is a no, right?' " recalls Gröning, with a laugh. "You're 26, and here's this guy saying, 'Why don't you come back in 13 years?' -- which was like half a lifetime later for me."
Yet Gröning, a Catholic who had long questioned many of the church's teachings, kept up contact with the prior, meeting with him periodically over the years to discuss philosophy, the birth of his son , and other major life changes. They never spoke about the film. The prior was eventually appointed as the head prior of the Grand Chartreuse in the French Alps, and a few years later he contacted Gröning to see if he was still interested in making the film. When Gröning began shooting "Into Great Silence," 16 years had elapsed since he had first asked the Carthusians for permission to make a documentary about them.
Gröning lived as a monk for nearly six months -- waking at 7 a.m. for the morning prayer, cutting wood, maintaining the fire in his cell, washing his clothes, tending to his garden, and participating in the daily liturgies and frequent prayer rituals. In fact, the lives of the monks are so rigidly structured that Gröning only had two to three hours a day to devote to his work as a filmmaker.
The monks, however, are allowed to socialize during their weekly walks, which can last more than four hours, and Gröning got to know some of them well. He filmed them debating community concerns, taking mountainside treks, and in startling, childlike moments of revelry such as sledding down a hillside on their shoes and throwing snow at each other. Although he shot illuminating, face-up portraits of most of the monks in the Chartreuse, he chose not to film any formal interviews.
"If you give too much information about the monks, then something flips around and the audience gets curious to know more. And then they stop wondering what would make themselves come to a monastery," explains Gröning. "For the film to be a deeper experience, it's much more important that you sit there and ask yourself, 'Why did this guy come [to the monastery]?' And by asking yourself that, you start to wonder: What would make me come there? And that's the moment when the film starts to really touch you -- when you come to your own questions. Because a monastery is a place where you encounter yourself and open up a spiritual space."
Gröning wants to leave the audience alone with their thoughts, hoping that viewers gain insight into the intense spiritual experience of the cloistered monks, their quest for self-knowledge , and even something of the divine.
"The film goes against all the accepted rules of filmmaking," explains co-producer Andres Pfaeffli. "There is no action. There are no explanations or voice - overs. There is no real structure or real starting point. We don't get a payoff [at the end]. But it works because it is so unlike all other films. And, despite commercial [considerations], Philip insisted on sticking to his point of view, and he went to the mat for it."
Gröning's previous features have included "The Terrorists!" (1992), a "grotesque burlesque" about a group of radical leftists planning a political assassination; the award-winning "L'Amour, L'Argent, L'Amour" (2000), a carefree love story about a couple of young misfits on a road trip; and "Summer" (1986), a meditative, nearly silent, black-and-white film about the relationship between a father and his autistic child.
"In a way, I think this film is closing the circle of my first period of work," observes Gröning. "It is very much attached to that first film I did about the autistic child. So something has come full circle for me."