Philip Gröning first proposed to make a documentary about the Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps in 1984. Fifteen years later, he became the first filmmaker ever to be granted permission to film inside the remote monastery.
“Ages ago, Philip came to us with a project description,” recalls Anatol Nitschke, head of X Verleih, currently Germany’s hottest distribution company for feature films, closely related to the highly successful production company, X Filme (“Goodbye Lenin”). “Philip only had four pages, but we said we wanted to do it. We didn’t really talk about success or failure of a release. We saw it as an experiment that we wanted to be part of.” Then Nitschke didn’t hear anything about the project for a long time. Phillip Gröning found partners in Germany (Bavaria Film, ZDF/ARTE, BR) and Switzerland (Ventura Film, TSI). Regional and federal film funds contributed to the EUR 730,000 project. “They knew my previous films, so I found it easy to convince them,” says Gröning, who has been the producer of every film he has ever directed. Yet he had never done a documentary before.
162 Minutes of Silence. In 2002, Philip Gröning picked up his HDCAM equipment and disappeared into the French Alps, spending more than six months in the secluded monastery, all by himself among the Carthusian monks, who strictly obey their vow of silence. Years passed before he finally reappeared on Anatol Nitschke’s radar. “Philip showed us 20 minutes and told us how much footage he had,” says the Berlin-based distributor. “At this point, we became slightly nervous. We didn’t have a clue as to how we were going to make this work.”
Philip Gröning spent more than two years in the editing room before finally showing his partners a version that was three hours and ten minutes long. The broadcasters were scared and told him: “This is totally boring.” Gröning admitted, “I think it is, too.” So the filmmaker started to gradually reduce the length of the film, but when he reached 162 minutes, he felt that it was finished. “When you reach this point, duration doesn’t really matter any more. The length of the film turns from a burden into a space for a great experience.”
Gate-opening Festivals. After some “major conflicts”, Philip Gröning started to consider making a shorter version for broadcast. Then, an invitation to premiere at the Venice Film Festival arrived. The commissioning editors suddenly decided that they didn’t want this film to be altered. Gröning remembers: “It became clear that this film couldn’t be total nonsense if it was the only German film to be accepted in Venice.”
X Verleih immediately scheduled the theatrical release in Germany, and two weeks before the premiere in Venice, Bavaria Film International (different from Bavaria Film) finally came on board to handle international sales. It was jointly decided not to market “Into Great Silence” as a documentary. “We categorised it as fiction, so it would fit into our catalogue,” says Thorsten Schaumann of Bavaria Film International. “When we first saw it, we said: ‘Wow! This is so different from everything we usually get to see, it will be something very special in the cinema.’ We’ve been selling it as a meditation. This film doesn’t want to teach you. It gives you 162 minutes of total peace.” According to director Philip Gröning, most documentaries focus too much on their issue and too little on the viewer: “Documentaries are usually not perceived as a great experience, great joy. They lack the incentive that makes you go to the cinema.”
Consequently, they targeted festivals focused on feature films. “It is very complicated to show a film both in Venice and Sundance,” explains Gröning. “And it’s impossible to show it in Venice and Sundance and Toronto… Unless you talk to them before you submit, that is.” The filmmaker emphasises the need for a perfect festival strategy: “If you end up in the wrong category at Berlin or Cannes, your film will be dead.” Thorsten Schaumann really liked their experience at Toronto International Film Festival: “North America is used to fast-paced movies. I was wondering how many people would still be in there at the end of our three-hour screening. Well, when I came back, the cinema was still packed, and it was totally silent. They had understood the film.”
Marketed as a Cinematic Experience. In the meantime, Anatol Nitschke realised that the film had turned into “an even bigger experiment” than originally anticipated. “We had to find an audience that is not totally conditioned to seeing 90-minute movies,” the distributor says. “We didn’t go for a broad marketing campaign. Instead, we tried to identify a specific target group who would be suitable viewers for this film. That’s basically all we did.” X Verleih published a minimalist poster and a movie trailer that was nearly five minutes long. “The audience expects a 1.3-minute trailer, a firework of the best scenes. We made the trailer just like the film: much longer than usual and without any narration. We said: ‘You’re not going to see a movie here, this is a cinematic experience’.”
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