Few Olympic sports are more beguiling than ski jumping, an event that sends athletes charging down a ramp at 60 miles per hour and then soaring through the air for 300 feet. It is a triumphant exercise in vulnerability, fleeting as it is frightening. The competitors are airborne for mere seconds, but the best performers seem to arrest the passage of time, not so much leaving the earth as transcending its gravity.
No one has understood this better than Werner Herzog, who memorialized his own fascination with the sport in the 44-minute documentary The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner. In that 1974 short, Herzog follows Swiss athlete and sculptor Walter Steiner—who had won a silver medal in the 1972 Olympics—as he effortlessly outjumps every other competitor during a remarkable trial at Planica, Slovenia (then Yugoslavia). Filming with high-speed cameras, Herzog captures Steiner’s triumphs—and sometimes his painful falls—with exhilarating slowness, each jump lasting an eternity.
Even by Herzog’s eccentric standards, this is a peculiar film. The other athletes—none of whom are mentioned by name—are little more than scenery, and even Steiner himself seems forever on the brink of fleeing the frame, even when he stands still. The filmmaker often shoots his subject partially obscured by posts or the struts of the jump ramp, as one might a rare jungle cat. At such moments, Herzog’s film feels less like conventional sports television than a nature documentary. Decades later, the filmmaker still speaks of Steiner as if he were inhuman. “He’s like a bird, like a bird of prey,” he told me over the phone. “You shouldn’t see him as an athlete. He is an artist. He lives in imagination.”
Where some of Herzog’s filmic topics were passing preoccupations, ski jumping remained a point of persistent curiosity. In his book Of Walking in Ice, he records the experience of traveling on foot from Munich to Paris in 1974 in the hopes of saving his dying friend Lotte Eisner through a singular act of will. (Eisner would die in 1983.) At times, he compares the effort of slogging through the snow to a ski jumper’s effortless transit through the air. For him, the sport is, as Jenny Hendrix puts it, “a way to fling off the usual protections—an expunging of consciousness so complete that all that remains behind is a kind of ecstatic joy.” Fittingly, while making 1982’s Fitzcarraldo, Herzog would pin images of Steiner and Eisner on a makeshift inspiration board.
By then, Steiner’s flights—like Eisner’s survival—had come to emblematize all he hoped to achieve, a rejection of the human body and its limitations.
“I thought about the fascination of ski jumping, which persists in me like a dream without end,” Herzog wrote in a 1981 diary entry. “Is the desire to fly innate to all creatures? One should take a closer look at cows, dogs, lizards. Is not the ostrich, with wings that cannot carry it, the most unredeemed of all living beings?” He still holds to the observation today, telling me, “I think it is one of the dreams of the human race to fly … and we are somehow envious of the birds.” For Herzog, almost all bodies are like that of the ostrich, incapable of attaining the heights toward which they incline.
As Herzog’s camera suggests, Steiner manages to be something other—maybe something better, but certainly something else—than what he merely is. In the film’s penultimate sequence, Steiner claims he raised a fledgling raven when he was young, feeding it bread and milk. In the peculiar way of corvids, the bird came to love Steiner, waiting for him on the roadside as he returned home from school. Ultimately, however, it began to lose its feathers, and, soon after, its ability to fly. “I’m afraid I had to shoot it,” Steiner tells Herzog. “It was a torture to see him being harried by his own kind because he could not fly anymore.”
But where pulling the raven into the human world had fatal consequences, Steiner himself seems most vital when he is more bird than man. On successfully finishing a jump, he lifts his arms into the air, a gesture that at once stabilizes his body and dramatizes his victories. Watch carefully in slow motion, though, and you’ll notice that his limbs seem to shudder as he hits the ground—up, down, up again. They are, in that moment, closer to a baby bird’s wings than to human arms. When he hits the ground, Steiner is not so much landing as he is trying to take off again.
There may be a lesson here for NBC, which has spent shamefully few primetime minutes on ski jumping during this year’s Olympics. An Associated Press article republished on the network’s site offers one reason for that restraint, proposing it may be because the sport lacks the kind of charismatic personalities who dominate coverage of other competitions. Herzog holds those personal-interest stories in contempt, telling me that they’re a “very synthetic way of reporting.” In Great Ecstasy, he shows that we don’t need humanizing, soft-focus portraits of athletes to capture the Olympic spirit. To the contrary, he implies, true Olympic excellence begins only when we leave our humanity behind.