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I Am Who I Am: Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence

The ontology of the man at the center of Christian worship is defined through language.

Into Great Silence
Photo: Zeitgeist Films

In the beginning was the Word, wrote St. John. The ontology of the man at the center of Christian worship is defined through language. And so it is that Into Great Silence, director Philip Gröning’s transcendent documentary about austere, cloistered Carthusian monks, ends up being a (mostly) silent film about communication.

Gröning spent a year living in the Grande Chartreuse monastery, observing the rules proscribed for the monks: silence except when necessary for work, with a weekly four-hour exercise walk where conversation in encouraged. Three hours of sleep at night, followed by two hours of prayer, then another three hours of sleep. Monastery chores and the business of daily life to occupy part of the day, with very little time that could be considered free. The cloistered monks live out the majority of their days alone in a small cell.

Though the monks live in silence, theirs is hardly an existence without words. Liturgy, spoken and sung, plays a large part in their communal life, with ancient words providing structure to the day. The monks pore over Scripture and the writings of the saints. But mostly, they pray, entering bravely and willingly into the great silence of God. I say brave, because this is the stuff of horror. Of all artists, writers know best what happens when silence is allowed to reign, because the life of the mind is an inferno. King David wrote in Psalm 39:

“I was mute with silence, I held my peace even from good; and my sorrow was stirred up. My heart was hot within me; while I was musing, the fire burned. Then I spoke with my tongue: ‘LORD, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am.’”

Samuel Beckett turned David’s lament into a screech of modernist horror in Waiting for Godot:

“Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you?”

Beckett’s existential tedium is invoked in the structure of Into Great Silence, which grounds the monks’ metaphysical pursuits in the unceasing rhythms of everyday life. The bell rings each morning, and each day’s shape is like that of yesterday. One could get stuck, as Sylvia Plath did, when she wrote in The Bell Jar, “It seemed so silly to wash one day when I would only have to wash again the next.”

Most of us can’t imagine a life without the distractions to keep the megrims away, but that’s the life that these monks have chosen. Gröning uses interstitial titles that repeat a handful of Bible verses and quotations from other sources, describing the meaning that the monks expect to find from staring into the abyss. For them, beyond the anxious blackness is the hope of joy. Through the silence, God will speak with the still, small voice that creates and sustains life, as he did to Elijah in 1 Kings 19:11-13, one of the passages Gröning uses several times throughout.

The film’s climax comes when one of the monks speaks directly to the camera. He is old, he is blind, and he has presumably spent decades of his life in cloistered contemplation. He says that he is thankful for his blindness because God willed it for the good of his soul. He embraces death because, in his experience, the life of the mind has led to the name of the LORD. Unfortunately, those watching who don’t read French or German will miss all of this because of the poorly translated subtitles. The French reads “Je suis celui qui est,” which is the traditional translation of God’s utterance in Exodus 3:14 when he spoke to Moses out of the burning bush. The German subtitle gives the similarly traditional translation of “Ich bin der ich bin.”

In English, this phrase is “I AM WHO I AM,” commonly linked to the Jewish tetragrammaton, or the Name of God; that is, YHWH (Yahweh or Jehovah), rendered as LORD throughout traditional English-language translations. This is the same Word that St. John names as Jesus. Even the most contemporary versions of the Bible, which take tremendous liberties with translation, leave this phrase intact. However, the English subtitle used in Into Great Silence bears no resemblance to Exodus 3:14. It reads, in a literal translation from the French, “I am the ONE who is,” leaving viewers unaware of the explicit link that Gröning is making between silence and the Word. It’s an inexcusable error. If God does not exist, if the LORD did not speak, if the Jesus they pray to is not the same LORD that spoke to Moses from the bush and to Job from the whirlwind, then these men have wasted their lives. The potential futility or ultimate glory of their pursuit is encompassed in those five simple words.

I’ve used far more than five words but haven’t even come close to what Gröning achieves through silence and imagery. The film has no non-diegetic sound, and Gröning composes his shots to achieve maximum stillness. Even so, Into Great Silence roils to life—despite its simplicity (and its length) it’s an immensely engaging, riveting, even entertaining film. I hope I haven’t ruined it by opening my mouth.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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