The Wide World of Werner
February 14, 2002

... and yet, facts sometimes have a strange and bizarre power
that makes their inherent truth seem unbelievable...
-- Werner Herzog

I'd heard of Werner Herzog, but had not seen any of his films. He is an auteur. I like film, but am not obsessed with it. I figured this was my best chance to appreciate his acknowledged genius.

The Dark Glow of the Mountains: (1984) Even among other world-class mountaineers, Reinhold Messner is considered a mutant. The first (and still, I believe, only) person to climb all 14 of the world's 8000 meter high peaks solo and without supplemental oxygen, he reputedly has an ego to match his unparalleled achievements.

Herzog followed Messner and a partner on an attempt to climb two 8000 meter peaks back-to-back. Gasherbrum I and II. It is a portrait of insanity in the purest sense: operating outside the conventions of common belief. We get to meet Messner, whose loquacious nature can hardly be exaggerated. It's an asset here, watching the film, although one would not want to be trapped in an elevator with him.

He tells of his progression as a climber. How on his first big expedition to the Himalaya he climbed with 4 others in a rope team. This led to his decision to prefer solo climbing. Less responsibility for others, greater freedom. And after all, that's why he's up here, eh?

All 3 of those compatriots are now dead. One was his brother. Messner breaks down as Herzog asks how his mother took the news. "She understood better than any of us." he finally chokes out.

Messner's climbing partner is one of his employees from the guiding service Messner operates in the Alps. They aren't friends. Messner respects his climbing ability. That's all. They are relaxing in a cozy natural hot spring near base camp, about to head up together into the death zone.

Herzog won't be climbing with them. He's not crazy. Messner and partner will carry a handheld Belle and Howell movie camera to document their record attempt. Herzog does follow them up the endless snow as far as his telephoto lens will allow. There is one particularly amazing shot that pans up the mountain from base camp to the climbers, small as ants, and then continues up and up and up. It's hardly credible how far up they must go. The many thousands of words these pictures conjure up speak of a triumph of hope and depthless will.

The film quality of the little handheld is stunning. Vivid color from the summit. The climbers looking haggard and beat. Now off to peak #2!

They return in 7.5 days, precisely on schedule. The first peak was a tough slog, but uncomplicated by bad weather. Not so the second. They got very lucky in rough conditions. There wasn't any real footage of it, but I'm pretty sure I don't want to experience anything this man calls rough.

Messner waxes philosphic on the nature of climbing and its objective risks. He is a realist, analogizing his compulsion as an addiction hardly different than that of a common junkie. You get the feeling he really is happy up here, even though he talks of quitting. Maybe, he muses half-heartedly, I've got it out of my system now. Then he laughs and tells how many times he's felt that way before.

Messner's dream is to keep walking. Until either the world or he stops. In his mind there is no distinction.

The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner: (1973) I had thought this a portrait of a sculptor, and indeed the first bit seemed as such, but this is actually the story of Wilhelm Steiner, the Swiss ski-flying phenom. Flying, not jumping. Steiner was so far ahead of his contemporaries, the physical setup of the jumps had to be changed to keep him from out-jumping the hill. The danger there is that landing flat transmits all the force into your skeleton which (this hardly need be said) wasn't designed for it. Landing on the hill allows one to convert the force into speed, which can be shed under control, gradually.

Steiner was sailing over 190 meters regularly. Others were in the 160+ range. Steiner himself was no great visionary. He simply did what he did. He was afraid of getting hurt, but mysteriously drawn to pushing the limits. He vascilates between shaking his head in wonder at his folly and railing against the officials for allowing it.

Herzog structures the film around a single competition in Yugoslavia. As background we see several almost grisly jumps gone wrong. Folks tumbling down the hill at, quite literally, break-neck speed, broken arms windmilling about. The slightest error in positioning skis or person in the air is multiplied into life-threatening peril with ghastly inevitability.

Steiner sets a record with his practice jump. The officials are stunned and shorten the approach, presumably to reduce the available speed and thereby shorten the jumps. Steiner then breaks the old record. The officials shorten the course again.

No one can touch him. Crowds swell on the second day to see the action. Steiner takes a bad tumble, but other than some scrapes, bruises and slight disorientation is OK. Herzog follows him out of the medical tent. Steiner is staggering slightly, but playing it off for the crowd that gathers around him, wanting autographs, or just to touch him.

Privately he wonders if he will jump again, but we know he will. That's the essence of the guy. His ecstasy is public, but not apparent to himself.

He starts the quite-shortened course two gates lower than the others. Voluntarily. He demolishes all, still nearly out-jumping the hill. The crowd goes wild. Most of the jumping footage is captured from multiple cameras and slowed down for full appreciation of Steiner's prowess. The concentration and discipline is awesome. He really does fly.

Herzog wants to say something about the dynamic between crowd (audience) and athlete (performer), but I was more struck by the inner, artistic, drive of Steiner. I believe he would jump without a soul to witness.