an incredible story of a man's gifts; not your usual sports documentary
Werner Herzog's The Great Ecstacy of Woodcarver Steiner is a glimpse of a man who is quite amazing at his gift of ski-jumping- he's the world record holder at the time of filming (and a record he actually tops over himself more than once)- and how he's all the more impressive because of his humble attitude towards the activity. He's a woodcarver as his other profession, but has it as his primary obsession to fly, to get whisked away someplace that is of his design but not entirely of his control. And he's affected by the pressure of his own skills, skills he acknowledges but doesn't flaunt; like some comic-book hero, he has to deal with the responsibilities he has at his disposal, of not going down for his audience (who might want to see that happen), or for himself, and at the same time staying true to his gifts. He's often by his own, seen through Herzog's long lens contemplating or trying to stay on his own two feet well enough when not ski-jumping. But he knows that he can't be brought down, as his touching story about his pet raven as a kid, who got pecked away by other birds, and in order to stop it, as an act of compassion, he shot it down. At the end of the day, however, the thrill of flight is all that counts, high scores be damned.
Herzog takes this man's obsession, albeit with modest feelings about his own worth as a mega-star in Switzerland, and transforms it into a beautiful spectacle of simple facts- of the moment by moment updates of Steiner's conditions or what has to be done to the slope or what rules have to be changed to accommodate Steiner alongside the other contenders- with some of the most beautiful shots in any Herzog film. It's not anything alien to see someone in a typical sports documentary to see the athlete in slow-motion speed, but somehow Herzog transforms the familiar into something akin to the theme, of Steiner's own thrill and 'ecstacy' as what the audience feels as well. It's very interesting as well to see Steiner in slow-motion when he skids, when he or another ski-jumper gets injured (and almost everyone seen ski-jumping in the film, and there aren't many shown other than Steiner, get injured in tumbles in rough ways), as it's something one usually wouldn't see in the glorious montages of sports figures. I also really enjoyed seeing Herzog combine voice-over taken after the event, with Steiner slightly rambling on, over the footage of his jumps.
Just seeing a ski-jumper in and of itself is a fascinating sight, as one curls up and has to anticipate what's to come in mere mili-seconds. And Herzog adds his visual poetry of motion with some usual-yet-compelling behind the scenes footage to make it an exceptional work. Steiner isn't a simple hero, but one who's got complexities even Herzog can only see so much into, as he's an otherwise everyman who goes to fantastic lengths for greatness, yet is very aware of the fragility of such power in a sport so reliant on deadly competition and spectator unrest. Very well done.
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