A common trait among Werner Herzog’s male protagonists – from Timothy Treadwell to Fitzcarraldo to Aguirre – is a flagrant disregard for their own personal safety in pursuit of something greater. It’s tempting to think of Herzog only in these heavily romantic terms. Yet with 1974’s The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, a short documentary about ski jumper Walter “Woodcarver” Steiner, the idiosyncratic German director reveals something more.
It makes sense that Herzog would choose to make a sports movie centred around a pursuit as bizarre as ski-jumping. Watching it is like being dropped into a strange, apocalyptic future, where wiry men wearing space-age helmets careen down long, purpose-built ramps before cannoning off at the end, until they are inevitably brought down to earth, either with expert grace or immediate destruction.
Few other sports have the ability to inspire awe to fear in spectators simultaneously, and indeed most of Steiner’s agitation in the film concerns his personal safety, judges extending the height of ramps so that competitors will reach ever greater distances at even greater risk, and not paying attention to weather conditions that would make landing on snow from a great height, well, risky.
To Herzog’s mind, Steiner was the greatest ski flyer of the 1970s – ski flying having derived from ski jumping with a view to achieving greater distances. When we meet Steiner, he appears to be at a crossroads, where his love of the sport has become complicated by his own mortality. “We’re approaching the limit,” he says at the start of the film, suggesting that were it not for the thrill of flying, he might go back to jumping from shorter ramps.
It’s here where the kinship between Steiner, Treadwell and Fitzcarraldo begins to emerge, and it’s here that Steiner’s calmness calls to mind another of Herzog’s great leading man, Bruno S. In one sense, Steiner is a lens through which all of Herzog’s protagonists can be viewed, something also reflected in the shots of the ski jumps themselves. The extreme slow-motion, coupled with the sheer length of time Steiner spends in the air, serves to emphasise the oddness of his body shape, and the oddness of the action in general. “Inhuman” is how Herzog describes it at one point, which should be understood as a very literal description – this animal is not behaving as we would expect this animal to behave.
A preoccupation with animals is a recurring motif in the cinema of Werner Herzog : psychedelic iguanas in Bad Lieutenant; using a turtle to explain the origins of the world in Fata Morgana; dancing chickens at a roadside attraction in Stroszek; the focus on the cave paintings of the horses in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog’s classic “the common denominator of the Universe is chaos, hostility and murder,” quote from Grizzly Man is not about war and violence so much as it is about the unpredictability of human behaviour. He shows this whenever an animal pops up in one of his films – it’s just that in the case of The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, the animal happens to be human.
One thing to say about Herzog that sometimes gets overlooked is that he’s a populist. He’ll pop up in Jack Reacher, or extol the virtues of Wrestlemania, because in his mind, that’s where his films culturally sit. This absorbing documentary deliberately plays up to the tropes of a sports movie, shooting the training regimes of Steiner’s Soviet Union opponents and utilising a rousing, anthemic soundtrack for the great landings and moments of adulation (think Any Given Sunday but for ski jumping). And it does so because ambition, rivalry, athleticism and human drama are common across all sport – even the weird ones you only remember when the Winter Olympics are on.
Published 17 Feb 2018
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