Philip Gröning; 164 minutes
In NZ International Film Festivals, different locations until late November 2006
I have had an interest in the Carthusians for at least 35 years. In 2005 I was able, with my family, to visit a number of Carthusian monasteries, museums, and ruins, including the wonderful museum La Correrie and the exterior of Le Grande Chartreuse, its external chapel, and nearby walkways.
One can imagine my enthusiasm then, when, as early as 2002, I learnt that film maker Philip Gröning had been given permission to spend three months alone in Le Grande Chartreuse to film a documentary. In 1984, Philip Gröning sought to make a documentary in Le Grande Chartreuse. No one external had taken any photos there since 1960 when two journalists were allowed inside on the condition that no monks were photographed. In 1984 the monks were not ready for such a venture. Sixteen years later they wrote that they were ready: no artificial light, no additional music, no commentaries, no film crew, just Philip Gröning.
Philip Gröning lived in a cell following the life of the monks for nearly four months in the spring and summer of 2002, another 3 weeks in Winter 2003, and a last 3 days in December 2003. He came away with about 120 hours of film having shot a cassette (49 minutes) a day.
It is a unique experience to sit in a quiet, full cinema, where we are used to at least some background music, and for the first thirty to forty minutes there is no music, no human voice. Every sound is heightened – the sound of the snow falling on the screen, a cough in the cinema. Even in the services in the monks’ chapel, the sound of movement, a cough, foot on wood, is surprising alongside the unaccompanied chant.
In this film we follow the seasons – again intensely – the average monk spends 65 years seeing the seasons change through one window, from one viewpoint. We are privileged to follow two men as they arrive to try the life, are accepted and welcomed into cell. Later we see others have arrived – during Philip Gröning’s time there four men came to test their vocation. We share the once-a-week common meal of the monks, their Sunday recreation, their Monday weekly walk. There are moments of humour including playing in the snow. We catch the individuality of the monks, the African whose room looks quite homely including a family photograph after only a brief period there. Other monks who, after many years, maintain a stark, empty cell. There are tender moments, the embrace as a new member is welcomed, the shaving of the head, the caring for an old monk with salve. There is the repeated filming of monks, one by one, gazing intently at the camera.
Occasionally there is the text of an important quote placed on the screen. The quote is usually repeated – leave everything to be my disciple – you have seduced me God and I have been seduced. The repetition is part of helping us enter the repetitive life of these monks. Towards the end there is a brief statement about death and God from an old monk.
There are some cleverly inserted signposts to help make sense of what is happening: the reader at the silent, shared meal reads about the common meal from the Carthusian Statutes. But Philip Gröning purposely does not want to insert too much information. “Today, we’re literally flooded with information,” he says, “what’s missing – and what one must find out on one’s own – is the meaning of things. My film also wants to be a film about the viewer himself, about his perceptions, his thoughts. He should focus on himself. It is also a film about contemplation. Just think: on average, the monks spend 65 years of their life there – 65 years in which they carry out the same rituals day after day. I cannot explain the meaning of this to any viewer, and one can only get an impression of this at the most through the repetitions in the film. I think this is the only way that I was able to make this film: by not giving the viewer any directions, but leaving him his freedom.” In our church life we would be much enriched if such an approach were more used in relation to our inherited Christian and human symbolism. Too often our symbolic life is “explained” – reducing the symbol to one meaning, one dimension, rather than letting it “speak” for itself – in its multi-valent, multi-dimensional possibilities. Others, in ignorance, remove symbolism, and, in the words of the prior in the film during recreation, thereby tear down the walls of the house they live in.
The quality of the film switches from High-Definition to occasional, grainy, Super 8. Often this gives an artistic, reflective effect. Occasionally it comes across as if Philip only had his Super 8 available for the shot he wanted. By careful editing of similar events at different times, he skillfully manages to give the impression of different camera angles at the same event. On occasion the monks’ chanting is heard when they are clearly not chanting in the visuals, which, with page turnings and finding their place, may give the impression of distractedness.
Some central concepts may not have been brought across through the film: the fact that there are the fathers in cell – they are not involved in the cooking, sewing, planting we saw, and that the (bearded) brothers do those tasks, bringing around the meals on the trolley. Some may have missed that the Carthusians break their sleep to chant in the church in the middle of the night. I overheard people leaving the cinema wondering why there were so many buildings for so few – unaware that all Carthusian priors from throughout the world meet every second year there as a General Chapter. The large buildings accommodate them and their meetings. It was possibly even lost on some that each monk had his own four room house and private garden. Some also wondered where the finances came from (I shall remember them as I sip my green Chartreuse tonight). Those who seek a wonderful further introduction could start in the recently published “An Infinity of Little Hours” Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order by Nancy Klein Maguire (2006; ISBN: 1586483277 – review coming to this site soon). Information, as Gröning highlighted, was not the primary intention of the film.
Gröning’s intention was more than to provide a documentary on a particular monastery – it was to be monastery in film form. Its international popularity highlights our spiritual yearning, and Gröning’s accomplishment.