Werner Herzog is a maverick film maker and one of the stars of the New German Cinema movement. An internationally acclaimed director, the creation of his films is often arduous, involving much person discomfort not to mention personal danger. Still, his films are beautiful, many featuring lavish landscapes and haunting scores and several of them are considered masterpieces including Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Herzog doesn't limit himself to feature length fictional films though. He has made several short documentaries, and the themes of obsession and danger that run through his more well known features are also visible in these. A trio of these documentaries have now been released on DVD, a wonderful compliment to the two Herzog boxed sets that have been released.
The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner (1974):
Walter Steiner could have been a character that Herzog created for one of his movies; an obsessed individual with unique talents and a very strong will. It is easy to see why the director chose this individual for this 1974 documentary.
Steiner earns his living as a carpenter and a sculptor working in wood, but his passion is ski-flying. Not ski-jumping, but flying where they use longer and higher ramps to achieve much more distance on the jumps. At the time that this film was made, the sport was reaching its limit. The previous year Steiner had made a jump that nearly took him past the sloped section of the landing area. Had he landed on the flat part, he would have surely died.
This film chronicles Steiner's practice and jumps at ski-jumping competition in Planica, Yugoslavia in March 1974. More than just a sports documentary though, this film is really about Steiner's immense skill, the danger that it presents, and the constant fear and pressure that he lives with. That's because Steiner isn't just a bit better than the other competitors, he is leagues ahead of them. His first jump at practice ties the world record which was set on a higher and longer ski jump, and when he competes he voluntarily starts from lower on the ramp than the other competitors. He is really afraid of seriously injuring himself, yet he goes on.
Herzog uses high speed cameras to record the action and shows Steiner's jumps in beautiful slow motion shots that make it look like the athlete can really fly. The cinematography is excellent, capturing that moment of exhilaration the jumpers must feel right before they land. The main flaw with the film is that Herzog feels compelled to insert himself, coming in front of the camera to narrate and even chasing Steiner with the other sports camera crews after the jumps. This wasn't necessary and felt a little jarring.
The music by Popol Vuh was an excellent accompaniment to the picture. Their slow and sleepy sounding songs meshed perfectly with the slow motion photography. Overall a very interesting film.
How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck (1976):
For this documentary, Herzog and crew travel to the 13th annual world livestock auctioneer contest in Pennsylvania. Here he interviews auctioneers, listens to their fast patter, and shows scenes of the Amish people who live in the area. After about fifteen minutes of these pastoral scenes, the contest begins. Auctioneers are each given a few minutes to show off what they can do by auctioning off cattle to real bidders. This goes on for 25-minutes, and then the awards ceremony wraps the movie up.
This is the only film that I didn't like on this disc. The beginning was intriguing, and I was interested in seeing where Herzog was going, but it turned out nowhere. Maybe the yodel like patter of an auctioneer is so interesting to Herzog since he's German, but having heard this since I was a kid I wasn't impressed or astounded. As the contest goes on and on, and more and more cows are auctioned, the film grows weary and tiresome. The awarding to the trophies for the best auctioneers at the end is rather anticlimactic too, since Herzog interviews these people at the beginning of the short and you know in advance who is going to win. This is one film I just didn't get.
La Soufriere (1976):
In 1976, the volcano on the island of Guadeloupe was set to erupt. Scientists predicted that the entire mountain would be blown apart with the force of five or six atomic bombs. The population of the island is evacuated but Werner and his crew race to the remote location so they can record the volcano's eruption. Even after the scientists who were studying the volcano fled, Herzog stays. Looking around the abandoned city and surrounding area, they uncover a couple of men who decided to stay, even though they know that they'll die.
An absorbing film, you wonder about the motivations of Herzog and his crew as much as you do about the natives who refused to leave. When Herzog and company find away around the military roadblocks and go up the side of the volcano trying to avoid poisonous clouds of sulfurous gas you wonder if they are suicidal. Herzog recaps the events of 1902, when a nearby island had a volcanic eruption and 20,000 people were killed by an explosive release of burning gas. He obviously knew the dangers.
The empty streets are eerie but oddly beautiful, and the long shots of the earth pouring forth steam is both fascinating and very typical of Herzog. The fact that the event that they were all waiting for never occurs doesn't hamper the effectiveness of this documentary. The best film on the disc, and one the deserves repeated viewings.
These three documentaries have two channel mono soundtracks with optional English subtitles. Great Ecstasy is in German, but the other two are in English. These sounded okay, but not great. The range wasn't great and none of the films sounded very crisp. How Much Wood has a light hum in the background which I was surprised to hear, and La Soufriere has an audio glitch where a word or two is cut out of the narration in a spot and the audio also cuts off at the end before the musical fade out is complete. Aside from that these are easy on the ears.
All three films are presented in full frame, as they were shot. All of them were a bit on the soft side. I believe Herzog was still using the old 35mm camera that he stole (from the film school he was attending) which explains the similar look. None of these films are crisp and tight, and the colors are a muted a bit and the image looks like it has faded a little. Still these unrestored films are transfered from nice prints that only had minor damage. While this disc won't win any awards for the way it looks, it isn't horrible.
There are no extras.
This was an interesting disc. Though I didn't care for the middle
feature, the other two were excellent. They continued the themes
that Herzog has explored in his feature films and were enjoyable to watch.
A great disc for any Herzog fan, this gets a high Recommendation.