Die große Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner
This magnificent documentary is a both a study of sporting endeavour and a journey into the psychology of a man willing to risk his very existence to attain his life long dream of flight. The Swiss ski jumper/flier Walter Steiner is probably Werner Herzog’s perfect protagonist. Steiner is an exceptional and introverted figure, a man on the edge of the world, who lives a life of contrasting and conflicting emotions. On the one hand Steiner lives a simple rural life in which he spends his days quietly carving objects out of wood. He appears unassuming and shy, somewhat awkward and self conscious in front of the camera, although when left to his thoughts is surprisingly eloquent and poetic. Herzog deftly emphasises the mundane aspects of Steiner’s life which allows for a far greater impact when we see Steiner launching himself at ridiculous speeds into the alpine skies and clearing 170 meters. The film opens with this image - a beautiful but eerie shot of Steiner in slow motion, his mouth agape, the mountainous backdrop still and implacable and the ethereal music of Popol Vuh giving the shot a resonance and grandeur that slips it into the realm of the ecstatic.
At the end of the film Steiner is given time to recall an anecdote from his youth about a pet Raven that was eventually killed by its own kind. This highly symbolic tale seems to offer a metaphor for Steiner - badgered by his own kind, when he all he wants to do is fly. But is this a genuine tale from Steiner’s youth? or one of Herzog’s interventions to present the audience with the ‘ecstatic truth’ he wishes to convey? This is a very poignant conclusion to a film that celebrates the ecstasies of one man’s desire to fly, that offers us insight into the internal complexities of an individual in the throes of an odyssey. In just forty five minutes Herzog packs into the film virtually all of the themes and concerns that make up his cinema - this is arguably Herzog’s most important film, and the strongest indicator of the persistence of the vision that he has followed throughout his career.