Step across the Border

A ninety minute celluloid improvisation

35mm / 1:1.66 / black & white / mono / 90 min.
produced 1987-90
released 1990

Produced by
CineNomad, Germany
Balzli & Cie, Switzerland

Written and directed by
Nicolas Humbert & Werner Penzel

Music composed and performed by
Fred Frith & friends

Short synopsis

In "Step Across the Border" two forms of artistic expression, improvised music and cinema direct, are interrelated. In both forms it is the moment that counts, the intuitive sense for what is happening in a space. Music and film come into existence out of an intense perception of the moment, not from the transformation of a preordained plan. In improvisation the plan is revealed only at the end. One finds it. The other connection concerns the work method: the film team as band. Much as musicians communicate via the music, our work, too, was realized within a very small and flexible team of equals. What mattered was exchange. And movement. Sometimes we started filming in the middle of the night, responding to a new idea that had arisen only minutes before. We had a fundamental feeling for what we wanted to do, for what kind of film this should be. And we followed that feeling. It was all very instinctive...

Do you know a white rabbit who, playing trumpet, circles the world on his flying carpet?
May be you have met him somewhere already, in Zurich, London, Leipzig, Tokyo or New York. That at least was about the route we took and what resulted from it was the black-and-white wink of an eye at the symphonic connection between subways, storms and electric guitars.
An American critic wrote: 'Fred Frith's music makes your jaw drop, your feet dance, and your neighbours move.'
Also starring: several telephones, puddles, scarecrows, saxophones, orchestrated cities and motors.
A music film.

Distributed by
Worldwide: CineNomad -

USA, Canada: DAME

VHS-NTSC video and CD soundtrack distribution

USA, Canada: Canyon Cinema

cinema distribution, 35 mm

France: K-Films

video & cinema distribution, 35 mm

Germany: Cine Nomad

video & cinema distribution, 16 mm & 35 mm

Germany: 235 Media

video distribution

Germany: Efa Medien


Switzerland: Look Now!

cinema distribution, 16 mm & 35 mm

Switzerland: RecRec Medien

video & CD soundtrack distribution

Japan: Contact:
P3 Art and Environment

Holland: Filmmuseum Amsterdam

cinema distribution, 35 mm & 16 mm


Fred Frith, Joey Baron, Ciro Battista, Iva Bitová, Tom Cora, Jean Derome, Pavel Fajt, Eitetsu Hayashi, Tim Hodkinson, Arto Lindsay, René Lussier, Haco, Kevin Norton, Bob Ostertag, Zeena Parkins, Lawrence Wright, John Zorn
and many others

Special Appearence by

Robert Frank, Julia Judge, Jonas Mekas, Ted Milton, John Spacely, Yasushi Utsonomiya, Tom Walker


Cinematography - Oscar Salgado
Original Sound Recording - Jean Vapeur
Camera Assistance - Dieter Fahrer
Location Manger - Peter Zobel
Production Manager - Res Balzli
Film Editing - Gisela Castronari, Vera Burnus, Nicolas Humbert, Werner Penzel
Graphics and Animation - Lena Knilli, Cornelia Förch
Mixing - Max Rammler
Studio Recording Engineers - Benedykt Grodon, Rainer Carben

Shot in

Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto (Japan)
Verona (Italy)
St. Remy de Provence (France)
Leipzig (Germany)
London, Yorkshire (Great Britain)
New York (USA)
Zurich, Bern (Switzerland)


European Film Award 1990
Hessischer Filmpreis 1990
Bundesfilmpreis 1991 - Nomination
Grand Prix International "Images&Documents" Figuera da Foz 1990
Uppsala Filmkaja - Best Documentary Film - Uppsala 1990
Innovative Cinema Prize 1991
Golden Gate Award - Special Jury Award - San Francisco 1991
Qualitätsprämie EDI - Switzerland 1990
Prädikat Besonders Wertvoll
Goldene Filmspule 1991 - Kommunales Kino Weingarten

Selected under the 100 most important movies in film-history by the critics of Cahiers du Cinema , Paris 2000


Solothurn, Berlin, Strasbourg, Salzburg, München, Sydney, Wien, Warschau, Locarno, Toronto, Figuera da Foz, Uppsala, Montreal, Trient, Viareggio, Florenz, London, New York, Leningrad, Göteborg, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, Marseille, Jerusalem, Tampere, Minneapolis, Dublin, Triest, Kopenhagen


Rock's greatest moment is, well, jazzy
"Step Across the Border" the most important mix of music and film since the early '70s

Before MTV unplugged Nirvana or the stage plugged in Tommy, before MuchMusic, or the rest of rock video, before there was such a thing as the "rockumentary" or the sycophantic concert flick - before all that came to pass, the very idea of rock - of popular music of any kind - coupled with something else, caused a stir.
Especially film. Rock and film.
It was the mating of two alien life-forms - no, maybe it was more like cats coupling at midnight; a pretty loud, nasty and memorable business for the listeners as well as, one presumes, for the cats themselves. Renaldo & Clara, with and by Bob Dylan, was the last rock flick that mattered, and that was in the early 70s.
Until Step Across the Border, that is.
And, not to mince words, it's arguably the greatest sustained bit of popular music on film since Shall We Dance, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in 1937 - and that includes Gene Kelly's heartbreak final ballet in An American in Paris, Jazz On A Summer's Day or Dylan in Don't Look Back.
No question. As Frith connects primal rock with everything from North African Pop to traditional Japanese percussion music to techno art-band stuff from New York in the late '80s when the film was shot, we're given one enormously imaginative extension of the potential of North American pop music.
This, he shows, is where the roots-connected pop of the 21st century has to go. Or, with this film, it has already gone...

(Peter Goddard, New York Times)

Afloat in a Stream Of Musical Images

The best definition anyone's yet given of "free jazz" - it was Charlie Haden's, natch - is that kind of improvisational music that takes off on the "inspiration of the composition rather than on the chord changes."
Substitute "narrative line" for "chord changes" and the definition works for what filmmakers Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel are trying to pull off in "Step Across the Border," the closest anyone's come since "Pull My Daisy" the Jack Kerouac-scripted short made way back in 1959 by Robert Frank, to bringing a free-associating, jazz sensibility to filmmaking.
"Step", like "Daisy", is filmed entirely in glorious black-and-white - and looks even grainier
than the older movie. It is a series of visual and musical tangents taking off from each other in seemingly aimless, yet enchantingly elliptical fashion. One minute we're at a rehearsal of musicians making controlled dissonance. The next, we're listening to filmmaker Jonas Mekas hold forth on something called "the butterfly wing theory", which summed up, goes something like this: Everything that moves in the world affects everything else, even a butterfly's wing.

(Gene Seymour, New York Newsday)