Sunday, September 06, 2009

The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner

This is one of Herzog's finest documentaries, in the top tier alongside 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly' and 'Grizzly Man'. Like those films, it is defined by the person it's about. Like those films, it could only have been made by Werner Herzog.

The title itself is pure Herzog: 'The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner'. Kind of makes it sound like a documentary about woodwork, doesn't it? You'd be forgiven for thinking that the "great ecstasy" of the title referred to a particularly well-honed chisel or a piece of the finest mahogany. Nothing of the kind; the great ecstasy of our titular woodcarver is, in fact, ski-jumping. Which is mentioned absolutely nowhere in the title. Carving, which is, features in exactly one (very short) scene, just after the opening credits, and is never referenced again.

Like I said, pure Herzog.

'The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner' documents Walter Steiner's participation in ski-jumping championships in 1973 and 1974, in which he outclasses all and sundry. And not by hair's-breadth distances, either. In his most spectacular jump, Steiner covers 179 metres at a speed of 140mph, 10 metres in excess of the previous best. His landing is awkward, however, and he falls and goes tumbling. Helped up, Steiner seems self-conscious in the presence of the cameras and hurries away, weaving unsteadily. There is some speculation as to whether this is the end of his career as a ski-jumper. However, he proves the doomsayers wrong and completes another jump the same day. In this emotional and gripping sequence, Herzog captures the athlete's moment of crisis. He also captures his passion, his introspection and his quiet humanity.

More so, perhaps, than any other subject, films about sport - documentary or otherwise - depend to a degree greater than their actual quality or success as examples of film-making upon the audience's interest in the sport in question. Herzog is deeply passionate about ski-jumping ("I literally grew up on skis," he recounts in 'Herzog on Herzog'). Me, I've always been more interested in movies and music and literature than sport; short of occasionally watching the snooker, I'm not a sports fan at all. I had no knowledge of or interest in ski-jumping before I saw 'The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner'. And yet I find it compelling; fascinating.

This is due entirely to Herzog's decision to film the jumps at speeds of between four and five hundred frames per second (as opposed to the normal speed twenty-four frames per second). The resulting footage is slo-mo to the extreme. A jump of just seconds' duration, Steiner's momentum almost a blur, is replayed as a heart-stopping, awe-inspiring, visually poetic journey of a minute or more. 'The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner' is full of these kind of shots, Steiner seeming to hang in the air, body inclined so far forward as to be almost parallel with his skis, trees and the snow-carpeted landscape drifting beneath him, the sky his witness.

This is not the documentary form as an exercise in realism. There is nothing of Cinéma Vérité here. Instead, 'The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner' is arguably the first instance of Herzog the documentarist striving for what he would later describe as "ecstatic truth". The sight of Steiner flying through the air in poetic and ethereal slo-mo is blatantly not realistic - speed is critical to momentum and distance covered and therefore a critical part of ski-jumping - but the grace of the man in flight, the emphasis on the magnitude of the jump itself, the look on his face (the great ecstasy of the title): this is the truth Herzog seeks. And finds.

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