Ecstasy and Invention

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

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This opening to The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, Werner Herzog’s 1974 documentary following the record breaking ski jumper Walter Steiner, is deservedly famous. But what comes next is just as affecting: someone is holding a little wooden sculpture in his workshop, examining it with the intimate eye of the creator, then carving and describing a larger, more ambitious work. Is he the same man we saw in flight a moment ago? We feel the presence of not only a great athlete, but a unique artist. Abruptly, there is a sequence of spectacular crashes from various ski jumpers; the music, through all of this, is unperturbed.

The music — by Popol Vuh, a “band” that is really just one man, Florian Fricke, operating the behemoth Moog synthesizer with a flair for genius — is what makes Woodcarver Steiner transcendental. Music and film work together contrapuntally here, separate but equal lines straying and meeting, enhancing and illuminating one another. Throughout this opening the music does not change its mood. There is a crescendo, but it has nothing 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 remainder of the film.

Notice a detail in the final shot: the climax of the music comes distinctly after the climax of the image. Having suffered a bad crash, Steiner flies again, and this time he touches down perfectly, arms in the air wavering ever so slightly, like a bird getting ready 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.” This is music, image, and text in perfect harmony, devoid of any appeal to cliché.

Glenn Gould believed 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.” Ski jumping is a sport not lacking in adrenaline, and Woodcarver Steiner is a unique sports documentary for eschewing it completely. 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, as one would expect of a young man who flirts so readily and skillfully with death.

To quote Herzog: “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, on which Steiner happily dances, is where the “great ecstasy” of the title lies.

Ecstasy is a peculiar word, one rarely used in its truest 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. It is impossible to describe if you have not felt it. But see Steiner’s face as he flies…that is ecstasy. And the images caught by the high-speed cameras, the images of Steiner soaring and landing, seemingly perpetually, construct a lifelong state of wonder and serenity. As Herzog says, and this is so often true of his films, “Once seen, these images are never forgotten.”

One of the most compelling things about Herzog is that his films resonate as something deeper, as if he is trying to compress an entire philosophy of life into each and every one of his films. They are inventio, in the rhetorical tradition of Cicero and Quintilian as opposed to the modern sense of invention. This is to say: they are ways to discover and elaborate upon arguments, ideas, and motifs, with the sense of constant rediscovery, of returning to ideas. 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 Woodcarver Steiner, we begin to clearly see his journey, and much of his future 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 the 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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