' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974)

Friday, October 03, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974)

In ranking the best venues and events at the recent Sochi Winter Olympics (because this is AMERICA and in AMERICA you HAVE to rank EVERYTHING), Will Leitch wrote "(t)he ski jumping itself, while staggering to comprehend (the height and distance they fly is ludicrous), can become a bit monotonous after about 50 jumpers." This idea seemed to be confirmed when I watched the varying ski jumping events through the prism of NBC. I could not help but note how the venue was pumping in bootylicious music between competitors, like the fans required a little something something extra to hold their attention. All I could think was, how spoiled are we? Here, before our very eyes, men and women are literally flying through the air and we view it as so monotonous we need tub thumping beats to keep our minds from wandering. God save all our souls.

God bless Werner Herzog. In 1974, the notoriously eccentric German documentarian, his fancy struck by everything from Russian traffic cops passing themselves off as Jesus to fellow eccentrics deep in the heart of Antarctica, found himself smitten with a Swiss ski jumper and crafted a forty-five minute (shaved down from an hour) made-for-TV film chronicling his impressive athletic leaps from ski chutes high into the sky and to the snowy terrain below.

Well, ski "jumper" is not the right term. Walter Steiner was, in fact, a ski flyer, and I confess that prior to watching this documentary I did not know ski flying was a sporting counterpoint to ski jumping. When I heard Mr. Herzog employ the term ski flying I simply assumed he was, as he will, expressing a mystic reverence for Steiner's abilities, and that a prosaic word such as jump simply did not pay proper homage to a dude who was flying through the goddam air. And yet, even if sky flying really is a sport - it has its own events and world championships but is not part of the Olympics - you still find yourself believing in your heart of hearts that all ski jumping is ski flying. How could it not be?

Herzog and his band of filmmakers employed revolutionary slow motion cameras to capture Steiner's in-air transit down to the most microscopic detail. Nowadays these sorts of cameras are employed by every network televising any sport and so we sit in the comfort of our own homes and watch the tiniest details in the tiniest increments on the biggest televisions in the sharpest high definition. Yet despite Herzog's technological achievements being rendered mute by the passing of time, the images he captures of Steiner in mid-flight are far less ho-hum than holy shit. This is because of the aesthetics - the way in which he paints this not as some sort of athletic endeavor but as a man flying. I mean, I cannot italicize that enough.

Yes, yes, yes, the film is framed around a specific competition taking place at Planica it was then Yugoslavia, and yes, yes, yes, Herzog breathlessly recites the world records Steiner achieves but the exact meters that he reaches are so much less important than when Herzog says his: "it's at this point where ski flying starts to be inhuman."

Steiner is pushing himself right to the boundary of what is humanly possible. He is competing less against competitors and even less against himself than he is competing against - feel free to assume a Herzog-ian accent as you read the ensuing passage - the wind, the mountain, the ground, the non-existent Norse god of ski flying. And while this might make him sound like a romantic daredevil, he is not. Much of the film results around fears of his own safety. The distances he is going are too dangerous and are only achievable because of the point at which sky flying officials set the point from which he begins his descent down the ramp toward takeoff. As such, he willingly moves his launch point down. He still goes further than anyone. Everyone else is going for second place but "place" is irrelevant to Steiner because what does "place" mean when you can fly?

You might be asking: "Wait, isn't the title of the film 'The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner'? When does he carve wood?" He barely does. In the opening minutes we see him displaying his work, and that's it. Never again. Of course, woodcarving is what he does to make a living.

But is it?


Alex Withrow said...

I'm so glad you pointed out that "inhuman" quote. That's my favorite line from the film. No one slings words like ol' Herzog.

I really love this documentary as well, and I agree, we are watching a man flying, not jumping.

afonsocarmo said...

he's actually swiss, not swedish

Nick Prigge said...

Yeah. Yeeeeeesh. My bad. Will fix, how ever many years later. Thank you.