(the poem Dust Drifts Through Sunlight appeared in Artesian 3: Time (2011), while the text was written as part of a podcast for MovieMail in 2007)
like snowfall, the cell’s bare wood
lit with flame, orange as a crocus
a warming chimney ticks its heat
as air draws through the stove,
twigs crackling like snow-melt
a bow saw snags in a beech log
ringing out the weight of its warmth
through these mountain walls
their grain sung into being by woodland birds
floorboards creak a man’s weight
as chaffinch song tumbles through tea wisps
cell windows open at dusk to the grain of the sky
this cowl is stone and book paper
winter mist, a dawn dark stream
rain drops imprint themselves in water
as bells scour the corridors and chambers
their green stone a river in flood
wetted fingers to a white cloth
leave it transparent to the light
an airy pendulum dried by the breeze
around the monastery
stars fall like snow
silently through the sky
around the monastery
stars fall like snow
silently through the sky
In 1984, Philip Gröning asked for permission to film life inside La Grande Chartreuse, the mother house of the Carthusian Order in the French Alps. Sixteen years later, he was granted a unique shooting permit. As no visitors or tourists are allowed on the premises, and the last shots from inside the monastery were taken in 1960, (and these were only permitted as long as no monks were depicted) this was a rare opportunity, based on a longstanding and trusted relationship between Gröning and the General Prior, to show the daily rituals and requirements of a cloistered, contemplative life. The Prior’s only restrictions on the film were that no artificial light should be used while filming, there should be no additional film crew, and the film should have no additional music and no commentaries – conditions which corresponded exactly with Gröning’s original concept of the film, and to which he readily assented.
Into Great Silence is almost entirely without speech. Instead, usually overlooked sounds come to the fore – the draw of air through a fire, the crackle of wood, the pendulum of a clock, even the falling of snow. Surprisingly, instead of making this a somnolent film, it heightens your awareness so you are receptive to the smallest noises, and even to the atmosphere of silence. Indeed, when a louder noise such as a bell rings, it has a startling effect. Gröning talks of the monks being in a state of permanent concentration due to their regime, in which every moment is filled with tasks, duties and prayer, and in which they never sleep more than three hours at a time. The heightened awareness that this ordered life brings is one area in which Gröning has achieved his stated aim of going beyond mere depiction of the monastery to create an absolute congruence between content and form, so that in a way, the film actually becomes the experience of the monastery, an experience in which the viewer is thoroughly immersed.
At one point, late on in the film, an elderly blind monk says that, “the past is human. In God there is no past; solely the present remains.” This partly communicates the experience of watching the film, in that it takes place permanently in the present. Curiously, this effect is enhanced by the repetitions of actions we see and hear throughout. Sometimes, Gröning varies the form, as when sounds heard earlier in the film are repeated with different, allied images. This is done with a light touch, as when we hear the sound of a washed metal bowl settling to drain allied to a shot of water drips.
There is nothing in the film that is unrelated to its overall conception. Even relaxed or apparently picturesque moments serve a purpose. Throughout we see sunlight illuminating the wooden surfaces of the monks’ cells, the floors and the stone walls of the cloisters, on the monks’ faces, and on fruit. The images are pleasing in a conventional sense but they also serve to illustrate a lesson that we learn about some way through the film, when a monk talks of equating the holy spirit with the sunbeam, and that as the sun shines on all equally but brings light and happiness to individuals, so the spirit gives to each one as if it were in possession of that person alone. From that moment the sunlight that floods the desks and benches, floors and walls, making the wood glow orange, takes on a symbolic hue and turns the film itself into a lesson. More literal lessons are written on the screen and repeated throughout the film, reflecting the recurrent psalms that inform a monk’s life, and in which insight is gained through repetition.
As a moment of relaxation and a change of palette, Gröning inserts a rural interlude in which our eyes are refreshed by the green of spring fields. This is a visual equivalent to the lesson that we have heard earlier in which the Order recommends a walk in the country once a week as a refreshment from the rigorously austere routines of the monastery. It is a nice touch that it is on one of these walks that we hear the monks discussing the importance of living symbolically.
We follow the monks’ lives through the seasons as they live, pray, work, and in one sequence that is surprising (but given the blind monk’s talk of happiness, really shouldn’t be), play in the snow. As Gröning says in his notes on the film, this is a demanding lifestyle with continual claims on your time – a lifestyle in which he partook whilst filming, as he lived in a cell and joined in with the daily routines, formed by necessity and prayer. It is no coincidence that a sound we hear repeatedly throughout the film is that of air drawing through the fire in a burner, which is an object of central importance in each monk’s cell. If the fire goes out, it gets cold (the monastery itself is 1300 metres up in the Charteuse mountains), so you keep the fire in. It allows you to pray.
Of the many images I can call to mind from the film, there are two which keep coming back to me, both of which are related to temporality, impermanence and an eternal present and which can remain as visual lessons in contemplation to return to time and again. Like any good lessons too they are profoundly simple. The first is motes of dust in the air, illuminated in a ray of sunlight. The second was filmed through the course of one clear night, in which time-lapse photography makes the stars of the universe fall like snow, silently across the sky above the monastery.