Rarely have I been so disappointed upon leaving a film screening – disappointed not with the film (which in this case was Werner Herzog’s 1974 documentary Die Große Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner) but with the relative mundanity of the outside world. The film’s 45 minutes show us not only an unfamiliar and underexposed world, but an untraversed territory of emotion accessible to a talented, privileged, hard-working and lucky few.
Welcome to the world of ski-jumpers, or, when they’re particularly accomplished, ‘ski-fliers’. Herzog focuses on one particular ski-jumper, a young, supple woodcarver by the name of Walter Steiner. Jumping anything under an eighth of a kilometre is disappointing for Steiner; he prefers to clear distances of at least 179m.
A scene from the film. Rarely have original music and visuals been so perfectly utilised in documentary.
Herzog opined, in Herzog on Herzog, that this film was one of his most important; personally, I find Herzog the documentarian more interesting when he probes his subjects, rather than putting them on a pedestal as he does here. Steiner’s profession as a woodworker, the almost beatific lighting on him during the indoor questioning scenes, and Herzog’s adulation of him might induce tongue-in-cheek comparisons to Nazareth’s most famous son. But 45 minutes is a length more suited to showcasing than to interrogating, and Mr. Steiner is a truly impressive sportsman; indeed, he transcends mere sportsmanship and is transformed under Herzog’s gaze into an emblem of humanity at its purest and most vulnerable. This may be the closest to sublimity man can reach.
Specifically German Romantic notions of sublimity. Herzog shares with, say, Caspar David Friedrich an appreciation of man’s puniness against the natural world, but film often allows us a slightly more complex insight than do nineteenth-century canvases. We see several ski-jumpers leap up in slo-mo for an ephemeral eternity, describing a curve that can eventually only slope back downwards, back to earth and reality. And reality hits with a thud – Herzog doesn’t spare us footage of jumps going wrong, their practitioners tumbling down enormous snowy hills, sometimes managing to pick themselves up and dust themselves off, sometimes not. Like Friedrich, Herzog is well aware of the impossibility of a true oneness shared by man and his environment. A shot of pigeons flying naturally, instinctively, in a spontaneous yet beautifully coordinated pattern, is harshly juxtaposed with the next shot – a ski-jumper falling clumsily in slow motion.
The word ‘clumsily’ seems pejorative, but the ski-jumper is clumsy only in comparison to creatures biologically born to fly. We’re in classic Herzog territory here: the yearning of humans to be as unified with ‘nature’ as possible. Steiner is human, like us – he’s a woodcarver, he gives celebratory high-fives, he has anxieties to overcome. But he achieves and experiences something none of us ever could: a sublime existential tranquillity as he flies a near-fifth of a kilometre using nothing but momentum and a pair of skis. And yet he is cursed by his own humanity, and by the burdens of thought, responsibility and accountability. His closing voiceover expresses his wish to be alone, naked, atop a rock, surveying the world with no other humans to cloud his mind.
Walter in the film’s hypnotic opening scene.
Steiner can never attain the naturalness of the flying birds, or the mechanical efficiency of the helicopter pictured hovering next to spectators who have taken to the treetops to best witness the ski-jumping. But he does attain a more magnetic, visceral beauty. Even as he moves, the only moving thing on a screen of stillness, we are transfixed on his body, which upon his skis is supply configured to form a precise, straight-edged ‘C’ – his neck straining forward, his trunk and limbs superbly streamlined, his ankles floating above the wax of his skis. The camera beneath him, almost in worm’s-eye-view, tracks him in wonder, as his mouth, like those of the other ski-fliers we see, is fixed in an ‘O’ for what seems like an infinity.
One final point, about the music: Popul Vuh’s score provides invaluable accompaniment to the sublimity on screen, keeping us transfixed. The piano ebbs and flows, the sound as a whole a precursor to Brian Eno’s classic LP of the following year, Another Green World. The drumbeat, like a thumping heart, is awash with aching, yearning synth sounds that seem to mirror Steiner’s desire to attain his inexpressible goal, and glue us too to this goal.
I left Rough Trade, the East London record store where the film was being screened, and the first thing I saw was a girl in a red dress cycling slowly down the incline in front of me, so slowly as to be practically in slow-motion. Somehow, she managed to appear tranquil, effortless and concentrative simultaneously; she was graceful. Grace can be found in the quotidian. But there is a kind of grace – a sublime grace – that may well be the unique preserve of ski-fliers.
Die Große Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner (The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, 1974) was screened at Rough Trade East on 22 August 2014, ‘Werner Herzog Day‘, as part of the launch of the BFI’s Werner Herzog Collection (available now, as an 8-disc Blu-ray box set or a 10-disc DVD box set). It was preceded by a talk given by Herzog expert Stuart Heaney, about the music of Popol Vuh in Herzog’s films.