The Sublimity of Sport

By Daniel Moore

“I ought to be all alone in the world,

Just me, Steiner,

and no other living thing.

No sun, no culture,

Myself, naked on a high rock,

No storm, no snow, no banks,

No money, no time, no breath.

Then, at least, I wouldn’t be afraid.”

-Poem at the end of Werner Herzog’s The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner

In a class of mine a little less than a week ago a simple question was raised: What are the greatest sports films? A few notable contenders came to my mind, Mann’s Ali, James’ Hoop Dreams, Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Chow’s Shaolin Soccer, Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, and several other great suggestions from the class, including Turteltaub’s Cool Running’s (Figure 1).

(Figure 1) A still from Jon Turteltaub’s 1993 comedy Cool Runnings, most likely the funniest contender of great sports films.

(Figure 2) Bavarian director Werner Herzog. Born 1942.

(Figure 3) 0:15, The opening slow motion image of the title character of Herzog’s film, performing the feat which gives him “the great ecstasy”

A film that kept coming to mind, is a rather unconventional choice. Unconventional due to its short length, and distribution. Werner Herzog’s (Figure 2) 1974 made for television documentary, The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner (Figure 3). When I was part of a screening club a few years back, I hosted a month of Herzog films. One night I paired two television documentaries of his, Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices, and of course The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner. When I told them that name, one of my fellow members of the club exclaimed, “That’s the greatest film name of all time!” The truthful surface response of this member is surely accurate, but it’s awesomeness comes from its honesty and simplicity in evoking what the film simply is, which can only be fully appreciated after seeing it multiple times.

The key word of this short essay is sublimity, or the sublime. It can be defined by two people, the first of them being Werner Herzog himself. A brief context is necessary for his explanation. In his 1992 film Lessons of Darkness a wonderfully strange hybrid of a science fiction narrative intertwined with documentary, Herzog opens the film with a quote he himself wrote, but attributes it to the french mathematician Blaise Pascal (Figure 4).

(Figure 4) French Mathematician Blaise Pascal, 1623-1662, the figure Herzog

purposely attributes his own piece of writing too at the beginning of

Lessons of Darkness.

“Why am I doing this, you might ask? The reason is simple and comes not from theoretical, but rather from practical, considerations. With this quotation as a prefix I elevate [erheben] the spectator, before he has even seen the first frame, to a high level, from which to enter the film. And I, the author of the film, do not let him descend from this height until it is over. Only in this state of sublimity [Erhabenheit] does something deeper become possible, a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual. Ecstatic truth, I call it.” Herzog is referencing the Greek philosopher Longinus, whom in his famous “Longinus” On Sublimity states that, “Sublimity is a kind of eminence or excellence of discourse” (Longinus 1). He further elaborates that, when “produced at the right moment, (sublimity) tears everything up like a whirlwind, and exhibits the orator’s whole power at a single blow” (Longinus 2).

Excellence of discourse is rather abstract, and can be defined in terms of this film as being of course it’s formal brilliance, as well as it’s crowd pleasing entertainment value inherent in its content. But of course the act of a glorious sporting moment in itself, and those who aim to experience the resulting sublimity, and that can be felt in Herzog’s film, through its characterization, aesthetic sense, and of course its opening and ending.

His elevation of the audience that he believes is necessary for sublimity in filmmaking takes place at the very first shot of his film. The soaring slow motion of a ski jump (Figure 3), it needs to be seen rather than described, but music as well heightens its fascinating strangeness. The same moody and disconcerting progressive rock by Popol Vuh that was prevalent in Herzog’s most famous film, the 1972 experimental adventure film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

The following scene is a brief expositional scene, the main character Walter Steiner, the ski jumper introduces himself with his full time job, woodcarving, as indicated by the title. This key detail, that of an amateur, an everyman achieving something greater, that sublimity through sport is present in the great sport films. That is seen in Turteltaub’s Cool Runnings where sprint runners from Jamaica who failed the tryouts for their Olympic team, try to reach that sublimity through the winter sport of bobsledding. Walter Steiner hopes to achieve glory in this sporting competition in what was then Yugoslavia. Steiner ultimately does achieve this win, but Herzog also shows that this sublimity, this ecstatic truth, a type of wonderful oration is also visible in spectacular failure.

Repeatedly throughout the film, powerful, and painful slow motion montages of the ski crashes are spectacular for many reasons. The visual depiction of pain is some of the most agonizing ever put to film(Figure 5).

(Figure 5) 2:18, Failure in this sport is almost as beautiful and truthful as success, which makes Steiner’s motivation

more sensible.

It of course causes a vocal emotional reaction for some, as well as in my case a difficult mental exercise in attempting to comprehend the physical and mental pain at the moment of a wipe out. The music from Popol Vuh is slow moving but rather upbeat, as men crash repeatedly, and still survive, some even are able to walk with assistance (Figure 6).

(Figure 6) 3:48, after suffering a catastrophic wipe out, a skiier is able to walk to receive medical attention with

physical assistance.

Steiner later on in the film crashes, concussing himself and breaking a rib bone. When he breaks a world record after that feat it’s astounding cinematic luck. Once more it’s something classically appealing to see as a spectator of the film, or of the particular sporting event. A beating of odds, a man able to get up and keep moving, or in Steiner’s case win, after something that appears so catastrophic.

When I revisited this film again, I thought of a recent failure in sports that was seared in my memory. The event which lasted only a few seconds had this power that both Longinus and Herzog have pointed to, that really cannot be explained except through individual emotion and feeling when watching this event. The event was simply known as the doink doink. This event refers to the blocked attempted field goal by Chicago Bears kicker Cody Parkey in a NFC wild card game against the Philadelphia Eagles, on Sunday, January 6. Among the very last minutes of the game is kick which could have greatly placed the Bears at an advantage not just missed the goal, but missed so spectacularly. It directly hit the left side of the goal post, to then hit the bottom rail sending the ball back away from the goal, hence doink doink, the sound of the ball hitting those two parts and missing the actual goal. I was watching with my father and his friends who roared in awe, as did millions of fans. This type of failure, like Steiner’s and other ski jumpers, is astounding to see, unexplainable, and just as glorious as the victories.

The key to the film’s greatness that has been repeatedly stated throughout my paper, it’s depiction and understanding of the sublime in sporting, can be best summed up by a poem about it’s main character which appears at the very end of the film that is placed at the beginning. An ode to the feeling of euphoria, the sublimity that is brought upon by feats of extreme athletics. This is speaking about a highly individual sport, but even in team sports such as the bobsledding in Cool Runnings this powerful oratory blow, effects everyone on a highly individual level, that Herzog understands is sublime in the visual and auditory witnessing of the act (that can be seen in Herzog’s filming, but also his focus on the crowds of thousands of people who come to witness the ski jumpers), and the individual experience which is brought to life through his character study of Walter Steiner.

Works Cited:

Herzog, Werner. “On the Absolute, the Sublime, and Ecstatic Truth.” Translated by Moira Weigel, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) | Human Resources, www.bu.edu/arion/on-the-absolute-the-sublime-and-ecstatic-truth/.

Longinus. “Longinus” On Sublimity. Translated by D.A. Russell, Oxford University Press, 1965.

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