Into Great Silence
UK 2005, 162min.
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.”