New, varied offerings on slate of 20th ‘Berlin & Beyond’ film fest

There aren’t a lot of hard facts in “Above and Below,” a film by Nicolas Steiner in the lineup of San Francisco’s 20th annual Berlin & Beyond Film Festival.

Yet the evocative images and spare stories surrounding a handful of folks living outside the margins in the U.S. add up to a provocative look at what it means to be human in the documentary, a graduate school project by Steiner, a Swiss student whose
background includes a stint at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Screening at 6 p.m. Jan. 18 at the Goethe-Institut, the movie is one of 24 features, documentaries and shorts in the seven-day showcase of new cinema from Germany, Austria, Switzerland (and beyond) opening at 8 p.m. Jan. 14 at the Castro Theatre. (“Who Am I,” a 2014 German techno-thriller by Baran bo Odar about a friendless computer geek who becomes a wanted man after he joins a group of daredevil hackers is the opening film; its star Tom Schilling is special guest.)

In “Above and Below,” Steiner shoots picturesque landscapes in Nevada, Utah and California where unlikely heroes dwell, and he overlaps their stories to dramatic effect: Rick and Cindy are a gritty, yet quite loving, longtime couple living in a tunnel in Las Vegas. Their peaceful existence and everyday routine (she paints her nails; he shaves) is thwarted only when the water comes. She loses her teeth, which are in a pair of pants that wash away; they find relief by getting away — on a rollercoaster and in a casino.

Dave survives in an abandoned military bunker in the California desert. He talks about God and sends messages (“I need 7000 dollars”) composed of bottles in sand. He plans on seeing his family again sometime.

Perhaps the most jaded of the bunch, April, formerly in the military, is one of a group of Red Planet explorers who go on “space” missions in the desert and devotedly prognosticate about life on Mars.

In “Above and Below,” director Steiner shows more than tells, leaving viewers to take in vivid scenery and characters, whose lifestyles seem less unorthodox, and whose emotions become more universal, and philosophical, as its 118 minutes unfold.

Berlin & Beyond Film Festival
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., and Goethe-Institut, 530 Bush St., S.F.
When: Jan. 14-20
Tickets: $11 to $15 per screening
Note: “Above and Below,” with director Nicolas Steiner in person, screens at 7 p.m. Jan. 18 at Goethe-Institut, preceded by 6 p.m. reception.

Leslie Katz

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