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The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974) – Werner Herzog

May 9, 2010

Werner Herzog has an obsession with making films about men who have an obsession with flying, kind of like how James Spader has an obsession with playing roles about men who have an obsession with sex fetishes.  In other words, this film could’ve been called Little Walter Needs to Fly, to make a really lame Herzog joke.  The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner is a 45 minute documentary about German ski jumper Walter Steiner; a modest man who just likes to fly.

The film opens with a strangely hypnotic slow-motion shot of Steiner seemingly floating in air in the middle of a ski jump set to strange guitar music. It’s the type of thing Herzog viewers have become accustomed to over the years. As if you couldn’t guess just by Herzog’s name on the film, this isn’t the typical sports documentary, though at times Herzog may use those certain conventions to his advantage.

It becomes clear rather quickly that Steiner isn’t the fearless egoist filled with madness that usually ends up as Herzog’s protagonist. Instead, he seems extremely considerate, modest, and above all, afraid. It’s a strange and almost disorienting sensation. Walter immediately speaks of the danger of ski jumping and comes across as scared, but says he would rather not hear people speak of fear. He says he wants to jump off higher ramps, but it may cause accidents, “we are pushing the limit.” Herzog appears on camera during a practice run and tells us he is about to attempt a jump larger than he has before and tells the camera that he is in great danger, “this is where ski jumping starts to be inhumane.” Now, when Werner Herzog is telling you something is dangerous, you’re in trouble. But if he is so afraid, why does Steiner jump time and time again knowing of the dangers?

Later in the film, Walter speaks of an incident when he was a child in school. A teacher catches him daydreaming and was asked what he was dreaming of. He says he was thinking about flying; planes, model planes bigger than he could ever build. All he could ever think about was taking off. “Maybe that’s why I suddenly took off one night and began flying,” he says. Walter says he dreamt of seeing himself in slow-motion mid air on skis, and as soon as one recalls the intro, Herzog plays it again. Speaking of the present, Steiner says when suspended in air, “that’s when you become aware of what’s really going on,” and another clip of him in air plays which is nicely edited before we see him land. To try to do justice to Walter’s speech about it is just foolish, so I will not. But, it’s not that he’s modest about his courage, he is genuinely afraid, and it’s not his complete madness that leads him to such dangers, but his poignant urge to fly.

But part of me wonders if Herzog is attracted to Steiner’s madness, or just the ostensible madness of ski jumping. Herzog even differentiates between ski jumping and what Steiner does: ski flying. Steiner relates the feeling of fear right before a jump to the sensation you feel right before a significant automobile accident, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Herzog was very interested in someone who puts themselves through that time and time again. After all, Steiner states, as Herzog plays clip after clip of him crashing, “the thrill of flying so far that nevertheless gives me a kick.”

The centerpiece of the film is a jumping event where Steiner breaks the ski jumping record. He was concerned about the height of the ramp; feared it would be dangerous to all the jumpers. Even after he sets the record, he is concerned and persuades them to change the ramp, but he still attempts another jump. He ends up falling once he hits land; it doesn’t seem drastic as he just rolls on his side, but Herzog plays it again in slow-motion and you can see his face dragging along the bumpy, hard snow for many yards. The injury still isn’t too severe, but Walter’s face is bloody and he seems mentally out of it. After he recovers somewhat, he disappears into the woods surrounding the event. When he resurfaces, he is put off and disturbed at the judges not listening to him. He is pressured to jump a 3rd time and is even more angered. He rants that they are just waiting to see him die. Herzog edits away from Walter into a kind of montage that starts on a flock of birds. He follows the flock for an extended period of time that resembles a moment of astonishing beauty in one of Herzog’s more recent and most brilliant documentaries: The White Diamond. The montage continues of a shot of a helicopter and many ski jumpers in mid jump as the music builds.

Just watching Walter, as Herzog captures a long voyeuristic shot of him frustrated, you get the sense that he barely even cares about the record breaking, he just wants to enjoy his moments of flight, the ones he dreamed about as a boy. And at that moment, Herzog goes back to a talking head shot of Walter and he tells a wonderful story about a young raven he had while growing up. It would wait at the corner for him to come home from school. But as the days went on, he started to lose feathers and was plagued by his own kind. Eventually, Walter had to shoot the raven and says it was a torturous task.

I was recently reading the book of interviews Herzog on Herzog, which in it he actually calls this film one of his most important, but he reveals something very interesting in it. He basically says that he treats his documentaries the same as his fiction films, more or less. In most all of his documentaries, he gives his subjects things to say or specific ways to say certain things; otherwise known as scripting. Herzog says he is trying to further bring out emotional truths that he knows the subject has in them. Now first of all, I wish I hadn’t read that because it kind of ruins the experience a bit (not that I think Herzog’s technique is wrong), but anyway, I’m not positive if this last speech by Walter is one of those incidents of Herzog scripting, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was because of how perfectly it works. I thought about Herzog’s technique while watching this film and came across an idea that makes Herzog seem like even more of a genius. What he is doing can be thought of as the same way as a fiction film, but by using real events and real people playing themselves, not only does he get assured natural acting, but he also doesn’t have to pay for or organize the huge sets, extras, or stuntmen. That’s just practical filmmaking. It’s quite interesting, though I’m sure some genre purists might have problems with Herzog’s authorial intrusions, but I don’t think anyone has ever been able to or has ever wanted to pin Herzog down to any one set of genre conventions.

The introduction we get of Steiner, in one of the film’s first scenes, we see him in a room with one of his woodcarvings. He goes into detail about how he feels about the piece and a bit about his carving technique. The viewer’s natural thought, based on the title of the film, is that the film will keep coming back to similar scenes, but this is the only mention of woodcarving. Herzog doesn’t differentiate between Walter’s ski jumping and his woodcarving; he uses it to introduce us to an artist, and Herzog’s definition of an artist is rather admirable.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Dr Mac permalink
    June 21, 2010 11:20 pm

    well done Shaun….I enjoy reading your work very much! Great writing. Dr Mac

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