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Die große Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner (1974)

A study of the psychology of a champion ski-jumper, whose full-time occupation is carpentry.

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A study of the psychology of a champion ski-jumper, whose full-time occupation is carpentry.

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1 January 1974 (West Germany)  »

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The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner  »

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DEM 72,000 (estimated)
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Featured in Werner Herzog: Filmemacher (1986) See more »

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How to document the sublime
29 September 1999 | by See all my reviews

If, like me, you think documentaries are the runt of the cinematic crown, a lazy option, an unimaginative, dreary response to life, a mendaciously arrogant appropriation of 'truth', than this film might make you see other possibilities in the form. Where documentaries are generally concerned with the 'real', what can be seen, evaluated, and understood, Herzog aims for nothing less than a representation of the sublime. And, as so often, he comes very close.

Walter Steiner is a typical Herzog hero. He carves wood sculptures from ideas that sound suspiciously Herzogian. He tells fable-like stories about his youth, an example of the subject appropriating the language of an all-interpreting creator (Herzog). He is both artist and storyteller. His great gift, however, is in sport, a milieu of order and repetition seemingly alien to Herzog's epic dreams of convention-busting.

Steiner is a ski-jumper. He skis down high slopes, and then just flies over huge distances. He is frequently heard complaining that the slopes are put too high, that he is in danger of jumping too far and killing himself,. This, of course, is why Herzog thinks he is less a mere sportsman, than an exalted attitude to death. He is frequently compared to birds - he is someone who can fly, escape the mundane, transcend the everyday to another spirit level altogether. The very orgasmic brevity of the act makes it all the more precious.

In the act of filming, Herzog appropriates this Wagnerian achievement for himself. By ignoring straight narrative, character, and concentrating on the exquisite moment; by bending, reshaping, slowing down time to elongate the sublime; Herzog goes beyond simple observation to enter new realms of experience. Although there are uncomfortable echoes of Leni Riefenstahl's mountain films, the photography in this film is unparalleled in modern cinema, with the dazzling white vast slopes all mere props for the ecstatic revelation of Steiner's art, this melding of two realms, our human, worldly level, and the mystical unknown.

This kind of Teutonic postering is not usually to my taste, but there are many pleasing more earthy moments, especially the sight of Herzog, cinema's great visionary scuttling around like a nerdy sports fan with ABC and all the other world media. Now there's a sight I never thought I'd see.


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