“A festival treasure that treats its subjects with a dignity that transcends judgment and a poetic sensibility that ranks it among the year’s most remarkable cinematic discoveries,” Variety’s Peter Debruge wrote of “Above and Below,” Nicolas Steiner’s graduation film at Germany’s Film Academy Baden-Württemberg, rating it among his top ten movies of 2015.
Other have shared his enthusiasm. Oscilloscope bought U.S. rights to “Above and Below” last year. A two-hour, lyrical cinematic essay, shot in widescreen and documenting five outsiders living on the margins in the California desert, the film was also Switzerland’s most-prized feature fest title last year, per promotion agency Swiss Films,
May 27’s German Film Awards, where “Above and Below” competes for best documentary and cinematography (d.p. Markus Nestroy), may be one of the film’s last chances to add to its prize haul, which includes kudos at the San Francisco, Munich and Zagreb festivals.
Steiner, who is Swiss, says he came across the idea for a film about “cowboys, ghosts and aliens, a great metaphor for our society,” when he was studying as a Fulbright Scholar at the San Francisco Art Institute.
His “hero and survivors,” as he describes them, are Dave, who’s occupied a destroyed military bunker; Lalo, a loner, and Rick and Cindy, a couple, who live in Las Vegas’ flood tunnels; and April, a student at Utah’s Mars Desert Research Station, who explores the California desert red earth Marscape in a clunky simulation suit, readying for a possible life on Mars.
But rather than Dave being the cowboy, April the alien and so forth, all seem to share a bit of all three categories as they carve out new homes, however rudimentary, and talk off-camera as Steiner follows them about their daily lives, with Dave digging a hole in the desert, Lalo trundling down the pitch black flood tunnels, torch in hand, like an eerie spectrum.
“All the heroes and survivors of the film live in the desert, which was a magnetic point for me, visually so different than the mountains I come from, but deep inside with the same rules of survival. They can be quite archaic, raw and rural in both circumstances,” Steiner says.
Steiner gradually gets at “the single core stories of the heroes in the film” — both Dave and April served in Iraq, for example — “just like peeling an onion.”
Steiner’s first feature, “Battle of the Queens,” was a 71-minute docu-feature, shot in black and white, about an annual cow-fighting event in his native Switzerland.
He is now working on his fiction feature debut, from a story brought to him by Erich Lackner, producer of movies by Austria’s Michael Glawogger (“Whore’s Glory”) and Ulrich Seidl (“Losses Are To Be Expected”). The project is set up at Zurich’s Maximage, one of “Above and Below’s” producers.
“We are moving back from the desert into the mountains and cliffs of the sea. It will be a fiction film but in a follow-up style to ‘Above and Below,’” Steiner says.