It is fair to say that Werner Herzog’s choice of documentary subjects over the years have been an eclectic congregation. The German deaf-blind community, livestock auctioneers, Klaus Kinski, Timothy Treadwell, and the continent of Antarctica have all been explored in curious detail. But throughout all the disparate subjects, there has been the constant presence of his unique viewpoint.
It should therefore be of no surprise that in 1974, Herzog made a documentary about a ski-jumping carpenter.
Except Walter Steiner is not a ski-jumper. He is a ski-flier.
This is not just a linguistic difference between English and German. Ski-flying is the extreme version of ski-jumping. The slopes (and there are only five in the world) are designed to be exceptionally steep, so that ‘flyers’ travel higher and faster, and for longer. The individuals who undertake this sport are not doing much more than throwing themselves at the ground from heights of over 100m, with two thin planks of wood to try and land on, and letting gravity take its course. And as the film repeatedly shows, this is not as easy as it doesn’t sound.
Not easy even for Walter Steiner, who is by far and away, the greatest ski-flyer. A full-time carpenter by trade, he hand-carves his own skis. He is man for whom breaking course and world records is more of a hobby, than an achievement.
Most of the film is set at a ski-flying championship in Yugoslavia, under exceptionally dangerous circumstances. Cold weather has caused much of the ground to freeze, meaning the skiers take off even faster, and the landing is even harder. Steiner is fully aware of the dangers and shortens his own run up to slow himself down. He still continues to jump further than his competitors, beyond the distance markers themselves.
Even after he crashes, receiving bad concussion and losing part of his memory, he still insists on continuing. He is an entertainer and cannot disappoint a crowd who have exclusively come to see him.
Herzog throughout is in complete adoration, admiration, and adulation of this man. Steiner is a man who consistently puts his life on the line, for the sake of creating these momentary flashes of grace in flight. And Herzog – as a man who (in the oft-quoted example) tried to drag a ship over a hill in the rainforest in the name of art – undoubtedly sees an affinity in their ambitions: creating beauty out of a task that is ill-advised, foolish and downright ludicrous.
He directs the film with a strangely deadpan seriousness. For one of the first times in his documentaries, Herzog appears – moustache and all – in front of camera and narrates the film. This is certainly a development on his previous documentaries where his presence had been lacking.
In the end, at only 45 minutes long, it is only an incidental Herzog film; one that is peripheral to his greatest works. Three years prior he had directed ‘Land Of Silence And Darkness’ (1971), a remarkable documentary and undoubtedly his greatest from this era. But it was not overtly ‘Herzog-ian’. The Great Ecstasy Of The Woodcarver Steiner, while not as important or moving, is a clear marker in a move towards Werner making Herzog-ian documentaries.