'Above and Below': Film Review

Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
A visually stunning meditation on what it takes to make a home.
4/15/2016

Filmmaker-ethnologist Nicolas Steiner meets those who live where others wouldn't.

A sympathetic look at those driven by circumstance or passion to live in unconventional places, Nicolas Steiner's Above and Below is left-of-center enough to make living in a storm drain look nearly bourgeois. Picking just a handful of subjects and burrowing in with them, Steiner finds an unusual territory between psychological portrait, economic commentary and pure sensory exploration; the artful result will play well on big screens, even if it reaches most of its audience on small ones.

Making a point of not introducing his subjects or — at least at first — saying much about how they came to live this way, Steiner brings us into three very different settings: the aforementioned storm drains stretching underneath Las Vegas; a small abandoned military bunker in the Sonoran desert; and Mars. OK, not exactly Mars: The astronauts in the homemade PVC space suits are actually Earthbound enthusiasts, who have isolated themselves in some unnamed sandy region to simulate a mission to the Red Planet. (You may be interested in the whos and hows, but the film will let you learn about the Utah-based "Mars Desert Research Station" on your own time.)

One unnamed woman on that faux-Mars mission gets most of the film's attention; in Vegas, it focuses on a late-middle-aged couple in one tunnel and the longtime subterranean who calls himself The Godfather in another; in the desert, we watch one lonely man ponder how much money he'd need to reenter the normal world. As the novelty of their physical settings fades, Steiner sneaks in more personal content: talk of bad-news exes and unloving parents, or, in the case of the lovers, non-verbal acknowledgements of the volatile partnership keeping them safe in this precarious spot.

Always on the lookout for things that can elevate already engaging material, Steiner finds links between his three settings to allow for poetic cross-cutting. (In the case of some serendipitous ping-pong balls, one is tempted to accuse him of introducing these elements himself.) Some fine photography by DP Markus Nestroy is more valuable than these transitions, doing well with spelunking darkness and parched daytime scenes, exploiting — and perhaps exaggerating — his subjects' isolation. (Our Sonoran desert friend seems at first to be in the middle of nowhere, but may be close to Slab City, a hub for nomads that sometimes attracts several thousand at a time.)

Though its overall tone is dejected, if not entirely hopeless, the film reaches toward the end for something more ennobling. Some would call its closing scenes grandiose, with their roller-coasters and planetary conquest and rock drumming under fireworks. But for individuals who've seen so much bad luck, one can hardly condemn Steiner's search for some grace or beauty in their lives.

 

Production companies: maximage, Flying Moon, Filmakademie Baden-Wurttemberg

Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Director-Screenwriter: Nicolas Steiner

Producers: Helge Albers, Brigitte Hofer, Cornelia Seitler

Director of photography: Markus Nestroy

Editor: Kaya Inan

Composers: Paradox Paradise, Jan Miserre, John Gurtler

119 minutes

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