The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner gives us a glimpse into the psychology of woodcarver and Swiss champion ski-jumper, Walter Steiner.
It’s a 45 min TV documentary from 1974, directed by Werner Herzog. The film starts with slow motion footage of Walter Steiner on a ski-jump, flying through the air as if suspended in time to ethereal music by Herzogs long time collaborators, German group, Popol Vuh. It’s not your average sports personality documentary, and that’s part of the charm.
Walter Steiner, a simple craftsman (woodcarver), was the world ski-flying champion in 1972, and came second in 1973. He was once again world champion in 1977, and won gold in the Switzerland winter olympics. In this film, Herzog documents his record-breaking leaps in Planica, Yugoslavia in March 1974 where Steiner achieved the perfect score — the first person to ever achieve this.
Steiner talks about daydreaming in school when he was a kid — of planes bigger than he could ever build, and all he thought about was taking off.
Maybe that’s why I suddenly took off one night, and began flying.
Steiner goes on about a dream he had seeing himself in slow motion, mid-air, on skis, which is accompanied by Herzog’s footage, “that’s when you become aware of what’s really going on,” then in the footage Steiner lands.
We see Steiner jump 10 meters longer than the world record, a 179-meter jump and subsequent fall at Oberstdorf in 1973. This jump was at the very extremes of ski-flying, pushing the sport to its most dangerous limits. A further 10 meters and Steiner would have landed on a flat surface, which would have lead to death.
We only see Steiner once carving wood at the beginning of the film. The only other time Steiner is not talking about ski-flying is when he shares a story of a pet raven he found and raised, and how it used to wait for him after school, but one day started loosing feathers, and was killed by other ravens. You have to wonder why Herzog put this in the film — but it seems to fit the story on some subconscious level.
Herzog is a documentary filmmaker known for his interest in obsessive personalities — these enduring, unique, individuals that see the world differently, and dream big. Watching a Herzog film makes you feel like anything is possible, and even achievable.
Watch the full documentary of The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner.