Sixteen years after he wrote asking the Carthusian order for permission to film a documentary in the Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps, Philip Gröning spent six months in the monastery, observing and filming. He has written, produced, directed, cinematographed and edited Die Große Stille. It’s an absorbing movie—a better one, perhaps, than Gröning might have made in his twenties.
It begins in winter and reaches verdant spring. The first image appears to be that of a monk, in closeup, sleeping. A subsequent shot clarifies the action; the monk is praying. Outside, snow falls, flakes drifting into the camera. This whitening-out abstracts Nature; montages of monks’ faces counterbalance this. Sheer silence is punctuated by the sound of bells. The white of snow connects to the flowing white robes indoors. Silence is one of the film’s themes. This is a quiet film, with quiet transitions, with fadeouts and blackouts, and faint sounds, for example, footsteps. There are group prayer and chanting, and murmured individual prayer.
Gröning observes monastic labor, such as the unrolling, measuring and cutting of fabric. The fabric could be sound or time. It could be nothing but itself. In closeup, the downwardly panning camera surveys buttons awaiting selection and use—as was once the case with these men. Is everything a metaphor?
One may ask why they have allowed God to choose this life for them. The answer permeates the film. These servants are drawn to a secluded, simple, quiet, tranquil life. God is in the earthen tones, the quiet wind, the silence, and the traces of sound that punctuate the silence, such as bird-songs. There is calming repetition.
An extreme closeup of an eye makes the face to which it belongs indistinct—Fellini’s beached sea-beast in La dolce vita (1959).
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