“This is one of the big problems of my career,” confided Philip Gröning at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival. “Usually, the critics who loved my last film hate my next film.” In that case, Gröning should expect a veritable avalanche of scorn for his next project, since Into Great Silence, his beautiful and contemplative immersion in the daily rhythms of a Carthusian monastery, has proven an unlikely crowd pleaser. Linked to Gröning’s previous work — which ranges from the black-and-white autism drama Summer (1988) to the “political grotesque” The Terrorists (1992) and the lovers-on-the-run tale L’Amour, l’argent, l’amour (2000) — only by his committed eclecticism, the almost three-hour, nearly wordless (though certainly not soundless) meditation on time, light and shadow has met with a warm international reception from critics and audiences alike since its debut on the festival circuit. Affable and casually eloquent, Gröning offered his thoughts on the cloistered community it took him more than a decade to gain access to, and his discovery that, with an adjustment of one’s own rhythm, a decade can leave hardly a trace.
L.A. WEEKLY: It took you considerable persistence over several years to gain access to the Grande Chartreuse. What drew you to this subject? Was it a personal religious motivation, or were you attracted to the aesthetic possibilities of isolation and stillness?
PHILIP GRÖNING: It was both. When I first had the idea, I was 25 and I was just becoming a filmmaker — I was plunged into this world that is very external and frenzied. I wanted an experience that would bring me back to myself, in a way. I had grown up Catholic and I had a feeling that there was something unresolved in my relationship with the religion. I wanted to reconnect with it in a very pure form. And as a filmmaker, I was interested in how silence and time could merge form and content.
You obviously had far more freedom of movement around the monastery than the monks, but you must still have had to greatly adjust your own daily rhythms to theirs.
I tried to respect as many of their strictures as I could while I was there, though I had to spend a lot of time just preparing to shoot since I was there without a crew. The monks all have keys to their own cells as well as to the entry door, so all of them could leave whenever they wanted and come back whenever they wanted. But since they didn’t, I didn’t either. I was not obliged to go to the prayers, but I did most of the time. I really had to live within the same rhythm as they did, or else I wouldn’t have understood what they were doing.
There is so much isolation in the lives of these monks, and yet there’s a palpable sense of community among them.
Yes, even though they hardly speak to each other. I think it’s the fact of knowing that everybody is doing the same thing at the same time for the same reason. When you meet other monks in the cloister, there’s always a small interchange of regards, a bit of a smile. That kind of recognition creates a very strong tie — a huge bond between people. Because everybody is doing the same things and everything is so ritualized, the small differences which people have in the way in which they hug somebody, or the way in which they cross themselves, become immediately noticeable. Maybe in this extreme, ritualized form, one might get a much clearer vision of how individual people truly are.
Is that why you chose to intersperse the frontal portraits of the monks throughout the film?
The portraits were there right from the beginning of the shoot. I felt so awkward with the camera; there was such a distance between me and everything in there. My liberty of movement made me feel like an extraterrestrial. Then I thought that the only way to resolve that was to have them sit for these portraits, because it’s no longer this sort of voyeuristic situation: it’s camera and monk, both against each other, and it’s a way for them to get to know each other.
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This is important for the viewer as well, I think. People will naturally come to this film with a voyeuristic attitude, and so I thought that the only way to break that was to have the monks stare the curiosity of the viewer down. They are better at looking at the camera than people are at looking at them. I thought it was a way of replying to the voyeur in myself and in the viewer as well, giving the monks the chance to look back.
Time works on a number of different levels in the film. On the one hand, you take us through a year in the life of the monastery, but that cyclical structure is complemented by a sense of repetition: the same prayers, the same chores, the same biblical maxims printed on the screen. And there’s the way in which the monks’ “archaic” life is seamlessly integrated with modern elements both inside the monastery and out: computers, planes flying overhead, tourist groups.
This is something I very much wanted to convey. There’s this level of eternity which is specific to the monks’ time, where people have served identically for the last 980 years, in the same church, with the same chant every night — a level where the history of the order is so much larger than the history of the individual. Then, of course, there’s the level of time just rushing by, of people living and dying in there. This is why I used the Super 8 sequences throughout, to give this sense of the fragility of time. And then there’s this feeling of absolute, eternal present, where every moment we have is just that moment.
In a way, that’s the most important level of all. This is why I moved away from language, because language is completely based on a narrative conception of time: You have to remember the beginning of the phrase to get to the end of the phrase. It’s always cutting you off from that pure present. I hope that as a viewer you’re already so far away from questions of narration and characterization that you can actually look at what you see, just those moments before you, and you can take that experience with you. I think that’s the highest thing that the film could do, to bring you to your own present.