· culture ·

I watched a couple of things yesterday (one a TV documentary and the other a film) which were both -- in their different ways -- about silence, isolation, and internal mental strength. The coincidence of watching them both in the same night wasn't planned, but they made a very interesting pair of companion pieces.

The first was a documentary called "Real Men Under Pressure" about saturation divers working on North Sea oil installations on the sea bed. The other was Into Great Silence (Die Große Stille), a film about Carthusian monks in the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps. Two more dissimilar subjects, you would think, would be hard to find, but there were a lot of parallels.

Saturation divers have a very strange working life. In order to prolong the periods during which they can work at great depth, they must live in a hyperbaric chamber on board a support ship, then transfer via pressurised tunnels to a diving bell which takes them to the sea bed to work. As a result, six of them live in a tiny metal tank, without seeing daylight, for up to a month at a time. If that wasn't strange enough, they must breathe a mixture of helium and oxygen while they are in the chamber, which means that these tough, rugged men sound like Pinky and Perky for a month. It was pretty difficult to understand them (they seem to be used to it themselves), but when they all started laughing at some shared joke, it was hilarious.

The work is physically demanding and dangerous. Stringent safety measures are taken, but I can't imagine that living in hyperbaric conditions for long periods can be good for your health in the long-term. It was also (rather casually) mentioned that the transfer from the chamber to the diving bell is the most dangerous part, because if the seal breaks and there is a sudden de-pressurisation, the divers would die instantly as all their internal organs exploded. That's just the kind of vivid mental picture you don't want conjured while you're eating your dinner.

What struck me was that despite these dangers and the hostility of the physical environment, they all said that they loved being on the sea bed for its peace and tranquility. They said that the stillness and the quiet, with only the sound of your own breathing, is something that's hard to find elsewhere.

Which brings me on to 'Into Great Silence'. This is a really beautiful and fascinating film about the lives of monks, and the atmosphere of a monastery. While the TV documentary about the divers went into great detail about their lives and the process of their work, the film explains nothing but observes everything. It's nearly 3 hours long, without narration, and almost without any speech at all. The Carthusians are an extremely ascetic order, and live for six days of each week mostly alone in their cells, and in silence. On Sundays and occasional feast days, they meet to eat together in the Refectory, and go for a walk in the countryside.

The film follows the pattern of monastic life: it is cyclical, repetitive, silent, beautiful and deeply contemplative, without comment or judgement. We spend long minutes watching monks reading, listening to the sound of bees or birds outside, logs spitting and cracking in the stove, or floorboards creaking. Or we watch the distant trees blowing in the wind, the stars rotating in the sky, or patches of light move on an old wooden floor. The absence of speech or music (other than the chanted liturgy during the Offices) makes the incidental sounds startling, which is -- I suppose -- the point of their silence. It makes them alive to the quiet things which might otherwise go unnoticed.

It is an incredibly intimate film. The cameraman is very still and patient, and yet it does still feel like an uncomfortable invasion of privacy at times, even though the monks are almost always deeply absorbed in their tasks. At intervals, individual monks look straight into the camera, just standing still and looking at us, for what seems like many minutes, but is probably much less.

My favourite scene of the film is one in which one of the older monks is making a new habit (or part of one) for a novice. He gently and carefully lays the white woollen cloth out on the old cutting table, smoothing it with his experienced old hands, before painstakingly measuring, marking and cutting the cloth. He works in silence, and the only sounds are his boots on the wooden floor, the rasp of the pencil against the wheft of the cloth, and the patient, measured scraunch of big steel scissors cleanly parting cloth and resonating on the wooden table. It might sound strange, because my description is a very poor substitute for the actual scene, but I think it is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen on film.