Ecstasy and Invention

On Werner Herzog’s “The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner” (1974)

This opening to The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, Werner Herzog’s 1974 documentary following the record breaking ski jumper Walter Steiner, is trance-inducing. The music by Popol Vuh — a “band” that is really just Florian Fricke operating the behemoth Moog synthesizer with a flair for genius — works contrapuntally with the images. They are separate but equal lines straying and meeting, enhancing and illuminating one another. Throughout the opening the music does not change its mood. There is a crescendo, but it has little to do with the images; underneath the grand drama of the ski jumpers, the music is ever-serene, like the strings in the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin. It is an understated beauty that persists for the rest of the film.

Notice a detail in the final shot: the climax of the music comes distinctly after the climax of the image. Steiner flies again after suffering a bad crash, and this time he touches down perfectly, arms in the air wavering ever so slightly like a bird wanting to take off again. It is an enthralling moment caught on a high-speed camera, and yet the music does not make any effort to support it. The climax comes, instead, as Steiner skis off into the distance, out of focus, surrounded by nothing but snow. It is a climax not of triumph, but of solitude. Words appear, adapted from Robert Walser’s Helblings Geschichte, realizing this subtly evoked mood: “I should be all alone in this world. I, Steiner, and no other living being. No sun, no culture, I, naked on a high rock, no storm, no snow, no streets, no banks, no money, no time and no breath. Then I wouldn’t be afraid any more.” The music and the image build on each other, and the text releases our emotions like an axe breaking the frozen sea within us.

This final sequence is also a good example of what Herzog calls “ecstatic truth.” The reality of that scene is that Steiner is far from alone: he is surrounded by thousands of roaring, adoring fans. His final jump was a triumphant climax, and as far as I know he never said a word of Walser’s text. Herzog had to carefully control the camera to make sure the spectators were off-frame, and of course, he fabricated the quote.

In 1999 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Herzog presented his infamous “Minnesota Declaration.” It’s a remarkable document in which he outlined his theory of ecstatic truth for the first time. The fifth point reads: “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” Even when his films are based on literary texts or real world events, Herzog relies on this kind of intense stylization to express his idiosyncratic, poetic fantasy.

The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould said that “the purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.” Herzog completely eschews adrenaline in this film, and Steiner echoes this sentiment in his own way: he is an artist — he would leave his woodcarvings hidden in trees up the mountains — who speaks of his sport almost entirely in aesthetic and spiritual terms.

And why not? Steiner flirts skillfully with death — at least crippling injury — which hovers around him like a common cur. Herzog helpfully puts the risk in perspective: “Ski flying at the level Steiner practiced is fantastically dangerous. The speeds reached on the slope mean the slightest gust of wind or patch of bad snow can cause a serious crash landing. God help the athlete who tumbles off the end of the ramp and is projected uncontrollably into the air, which is comparable to falling off a speeding express train. The other danger is flying too far and landing on the flat, which would be like hitting the ground after jumping from the Empire State Building.” Steiner is so superior that he does almost land on the flat, and has to handicap himself for his own safety (he still wins the competition and breaks the world record). Herzog goes on: “Ski flying isn’t just an athletic pursuit; it’s also spiritual, a question of how to master a fear of death. Those jumpers who thought they could beat Steiner only through athletic means never stood a chance.” This knife’s edge between the athletic and the spiritual is where the “great ecstasy” of the title lies.

Ecstasy is a peculiar word, one rarely used in its true sense today. It is not simply overwhelming joy, or even trance, frenzy, or a drug induced rapture. It comes from the Greek ekstasis meaning “to step outside oneself.” It carries with it a sense of spiritual revelation, the kind felt by mystics and monks who would experience, simultaneously bodily and out of bodily, Truth or God. Watch Steiner’s face as he flies: that is ecstasy. And the images of Steiner’s ecstatic flight construct a state of wonder and serenity in the viewer; as Herzog says, and this is so often true of his films, “Once seen, these images are never forgotten.”

One of the most interesting things about Herzog is that his works are not merely beautiful, they are all connected at their roots by his philosophy on life and cinema. They are inventio in the rhetorical tradition of Cicero and Quintilian, as opposed to the modern invention; they are ways to elaborate upon arguments, ideas, and motifs, with the sense of constant rediscovery, of returning to ideas. Film is an inherently dramatic genre, but Herzog is one of the few argumentative filmmakers. He made thirteen films before this one, some of them unreleased, and the one immediately preceding this was Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which was a critical success. But with The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner we begin to clearly see his dreams, and his later work is illuminated by it.

Herzog’s films are, at their best, reports from the edges of humanity; he reveals characters, real and imagined, who embody the deep spiritual solitude seen in those who are anathema to society. This alienation from communal life stems not from their inhumanity, but from their fanatical pursuit of the basest human instincts, such as the dream of flying or the wish to exist harmoniously in nature. He has a keen eye for such figures, and his films rediscover and reinvent their solitude and their ecstasies.

Walter Steiner is an athlete, an aesthete, a monk, a wanderer, a seeker. He does not care for gravity. He is Aguirre, the conquistador with delusions of empire. He is Kaspar Hauser, the tragic soul who saw the world anew. He is Timothy Treadwell, who showed us the nobility and folly of man and nature. He is the artist who left their handprints on the wall of the Chauvet Cave some 32,000 years ago. Behind all of these characters, holding a camera to them as if it were a mirror, is Werner Herzog.

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Flutist & cohost of the Impolite to Listen podcast

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