In more than 50 years of documentary filmmaking, the German director Werner Herzog found few subjects as poetically nuts as he is, though the early-'70s slopes of Switzerland delivered his Platonic ideal: ski flying champion Walter Steiner, enigmatic star of Herzog's—if not cinema's—most lyrical documentary, The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner.
After the director's masterpiece Aguirre the Wrath of God (1972) nearly got Herzog and his crew killed (by either the perils of the Amazon jungle or rampaging star Klaus Kinski, depending on whose account you buy), Herzog found the kind of obsessive hero that would drive most of his subsequent films. "Ski flying," is no lyrical flight of fancy but a distinct sport, separate from ski jumping, with its own world championships, including the 1974 one in then-Yugoslavian valley Planica, where Steiner broke world records and achieved the sport's first perfect score. An outsider in an outsider's sport, Steiner is that signature Herzog hero, a lonely seeker of life beyond humanity's bonds.
The film opens with a moment of breathtaking, pregnant stillness: an empty ramp under an off-white sky; its horizontal axis pierced by the long-limbed figure of Steiner. A Brian Eno-like tone poem courtesy of German electronic band Popol Vuh's pianist, Florian Fricke, follows the lift-off and epic descent, then we visit the soft-spoken, hound-faced Swiss woodcarver in his studio, discussing his sculpture methodology. "The way the shape recedes," he says pointing to a curve in a wood sculpture, "it's as if an explosion has happened and the force cannot escape." It's a condition Steiner clearly refuses to accept for himself.
Herzog cuts to a shot of Steiner crashing to the earth like a full-contact Icarus, then doing it again, exquisite slo-mo treating us to the ligament-tearing moment when left ski goes rogue, kicking up behind him and pin-wheeling his body as bounces off the deck: one more disaster seemingly as crucial as his triumphs. On camera, the young mustachioed director suggests an erudite, Bavarian Geraldo Rivera, his handheld sportscaster's mike clearly stagecraft, his fandom entirely genuine. "It's at this point where ski flying starts to be inhuman," says Herzog. Standing near the site of Steiner's landing, Herzog points to a flat just ten meters lower on the slope, where landing would have been fatal. "Strange as it may seem," the director says. "This is exactly where this film had its inception for me." It seems less strange after his 2005 film Grizzly Man followed one subject's obsession to an on-camera death.
Today, both the filmmaking and its subject stand as a rebuke to a subsequent high-tech, low-risk generations. The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner was shot on 16mm film using then-revolutionary slow-motion cameras, often at 1/10th to 1/20th speed, capturing Steiner's flight with surgical detail. Digital pixels approximate this precision on high-definition plasma screens in every sports bar.
But even 42 years later, the sight of Steiner mid-flight remains indelible: in its simplicity and pacing, Herzog's obsessively graceful coverage emphasizes less a world-champion athlete than the simple fact of man taking wing. In ultra slo-mo Steiner's slender figure looks like a Modigliani sculpture soaring through air, the camera following rapturously and for so long that you swear he's suspended on wires. Then down he goes, bib number 35 sinking out of shot, before another camera picks him up as both skis kiss the powdered earth, his hands out and raised like wings. Whether it's done in victory, to maintain balance, or as an unwilled expression of sheer grace, nothing like it was ever seen on film again.