by Joyelle McSweeney on Jul.17, 2011
I recently had the pleasure of watching two ‘documentary’ films by Werner Herzog—The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner, a short minute film about 70’s Swiss ‘skiflying’ champion Walter Steiner—and the recent 3-D extravaganza Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the earliest examples of cave painting in Europe. What’s interesting about both these films is that, at their outset, both appear to embody a kind of ‘extreme humanism’. Each celebrates an extreme accomplishment by a specific human or group of humans—the earliest example of painting (sic), the longest flight on skies off the Planica skiflyingramp in Yugoslavia (sic)—and holds this accomplishment up as a kind of metric for humanity itself, an outline or a measuring mark for its essential phenotype of ambition, failure, correction, and relaunch. In this extreme humanism, man is the measure of all things—most especially, of himself.
But this solipsistic notion—that man is the measure of man- is itself a loop, a folding, a self-saturation that begins to gesture at the hyperbolic over-saturation and collapse of humanist project or portrait in Herzog’s films, yeilding something so irrational, beautiful, terrible, and certainly out of control that it is less like a portait of a man and more like an innundation with the Sublime.
The hyperbolic title of the Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner tells us that we are getting something much in excess of a documentary portrait. In this gorgeous film, footage of flight and crashes reel and unreel in and out of time, taken with highspeed cameras and played back in slow motion, repeated, played out of order or without preface, given a new voiceover soundtrack, which, Herzog-the-narrator informs us, was recorded in a hut just minutes from the track, in a room too dark to film in—a kind of grave-cave producing out-of-synch sound. But lest we feel that these are the mere (!) vicissitudes of an avantgarde editing process, the skier himself repeats and revises his jumps, moving his departure point up and down the ramp, overshooting the measuring mark, crashing on purpose so as to amplify his words of warning about dangerous skiing conditions. So it’s not just the film but the ‘content’ itself that has a jerky,odd, autistic, beautiful, highflying and spine-crushing non-rhythm. Steiner himself is erratic and out of synch with himself. The content itself anachronistically exhibits the characteristics of film editing technology. Life is always already a fim, a film blown out to its limits. The inexpressiveness of Steiner is similarly involuted then abruptly extroverted as he flies through the air over a crowd of admiring Yugoslavs. The entire spasming spectacle ceases to feel narrative, linear or portrait-like, and beings to feel like a spasming of the Sublime through the media of human bodies, 70’s parkas, ski ramps, Soviets, snow, cameras. Life is just a soundset for the Sublime; for the Sublime making and editing its own spasmatic films.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams makes a more conventionally humanist gesture, as Herzog-the-narrator bangs on about the human soul and its invention through cave painting below France some
6,000 30,000 (!)years ago. This statement has the typical paradoxical doubling of myopia and grandeur which defines supposedly-rational humanism, but, again, the film itself uses this paradox as a kind of difference engine to explode its own construct. Crunched into the drastically foreshortened vistas of the cramped caves and then blow open in somewhat laughable 3-D, the film manages to be both claustrophobic and wobblingly projectile, and ends up feeling hypothetical and conjectural despite its supposed documentary status. The constantly hyperbolic nature of Herzog’s rhetoric is the embodiment of this technological doubleness, this oscillation and paradox. It is so beyond the mark that it seems to happen in a non-site of surreal collapse and expansion—in other words, the Sublime. As Herzog remarks in the Steiner film, “this is where skiflying begins to be inhuman.” This inhumanity, or non-humanism, is driven home by the excellent coda to Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the most brilliant 8 minutes of cinema I’ve seen in some time, in which Herzog appears to propose that reality is the fever dream of a mutant albino crocodile addled by swimming in nuclear runoff, an albino crocodile dreaming of his own twin. The effect of this coda is to introduce something into the film so extreme that it overshoots even the hyperbolicaly extreme rhetoric with which Herzog has ladled the film all along; as in all of Herzog’s films, this one is so overnarrated that it ends up gesturing towards something that can’t be narrated at all. In the crocodile-coda, the would-be humanist project of the film inverts, ruptures itself, spills out through the opaque and brimming eye of a mutant albino crocodile, a mutagenic, inhuman Sublime, a nextness which can only be gestured at, beyond the grasp even of Herzog’s extreme but still human language.