Monday, January 26, 2015

#1,624. The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner (1974)

Directed By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Walter Steiner, Werner Herzog

Trivia: This film was made as part of a series for a German television station

Walter Steiner, a champion ski flyer (a sport similar to ski jumping except that it involves a much bigger hill), is the subject of Werner Herzog’s The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner, a 1974 documentary produced for German television. While the film does spend some time with Steiner away from the slopes (aside from a series of interviews conducted while he’s ice fishing, Herzog visits the athlete in his woodworking shop, where we see a few of his creations), it’s the scenes in which he’s doing what he loves (i.e. flying through the air) that make this movie such a rewarding experience.

Narrated and hosted by Herzog (in an unusual move, the director stands in front of the camera as well, as if he were a reporter covering an event), the bulk of The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner takes place at a 1974 competition in Planica, a region that at the time was situated in Yugoslavia (today, it’s part of Slovenia). With many of his jumps (as well as those of his competitors) presented in slow motion, Steiner, considered the odds-on favorite to win, sets a new course record during his first trial run. Still, he’s more concerned than pleased; convinced the track is too fast, he fears that, if the judges don’t shorten the run, a wipe-out of tragic proportions will likely occur. Sure enough, his second run takes him even further down the slope than the first, but shortly after he lands, Steiner crashes to the ground, opening up a gash on his forehead. Luckily, he’s able to continue, but wonders if it’s worth the risk. “I feel I’m in the arena”, Steiner says, “with 50,000 people waiting to see me crash”. If he does compete, odds are he’ll break a few more records before he’s through, yet his chances of suffering a career-ending injury are also great. How will he handle this dilemma?

It’s the stuff that great sports stories are made of: the thrill of the competition; the athlete struggling with both the conditions of the course and his own psyche; all playing out before our eyes. With The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner, Werner Herzog has crafted a superior documentary that, at the same time, is an excellent sports drama.

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