Tuesday, March 27, 2012


As far as short films go, this one's pretty lengthy, clocking in at almost 45 minutes in running time.  But I'd argue that it's as essential a film as Werner Herzog ever made (okay, a close second after Lessons of Darkness), containing deep ruminations on the mystical and Freudian impulses (the death drive, specifically) often present in his work without being bogged down on a surface level by overly ponderous pronouncements on those subjects.

One can truly enjoy the piece for its base elements: awe-inspiring, slow-motion 16mm cinematography of the greatest (circa the early 1970s) ski-jumper in the world, Walter Steiner, performing his trade, coming within inches of extreme peril each time he competes, as well as complimentary ethereal music by Popol Vuh, and the film's outside-the-box approach to the sports documentary genre.

It's the visual element that's most stunning here.  Cinematographer Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein camera work erases all trace of gravity from Steiner's record breaking jumps.  I've yet to see anything else captured on film that isolates its subject from standard worldly experiences as effectively as The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner; it's like watching the moon landing, if the astronauts' bodies were substituted for their spacecraft.

Regarding the risk inherent in Steiner's sport: his frustration around the imposed boundaries for his jumps (which he regularly oversteps) mirrors that of the late Formula One racer Ayrton Senna, the subject of last year's must-see documentary Senna.  As Steiner jumps further and further, there is little accommodation made by the sporting officials for his safety, placing him in extreme danger if he continues to compete at the full extent of his powers.  It's a tension that is transferred to the viewer as Steiner hurtles through space repeatedly throughout the film.

A magnificent documentary that truly pushes the form forward.  Sit back and enjoy The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner:

A note: if you're having trouble turning on the subtitles, you may have to view the video directly on YouTube.

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