Step Across the Border

A ninety minute celluloid improvisation

Musizieren als spontaner und unaufhörlicher Stoffwechsel mit der Welt: Der britische Musiker Fred Frith macht das einfach so, ohne irgendwelche Künstler-Allüren, als wär’s nicht nur die leichteste, sondern auch die selbstverständlichste Sache der Welt. Nicolas Humbert und Werner Penzel haben sich Frith zwei Jahre an die Fersen geheftet, haben sich anstecken lassen. In ihrer Zelluloid-Improvisation antworten sie auf seine Musik mit Montagesequenzen, in denen sie sich dieselbe Freiheit nehmen, die Welt zum Tanzen zu bringen.

Written and directed by

Nicolas Humbert & Werner Penzel

Music composed and performed by

Fred Frith & friends


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 Appearences

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

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

Produced by

CineNomad, Germany
Balzli & Cie, Switzerland

Supported by

HFF, Munich
BR – WDR – NDR, Germany
Bundesamt für Kultur, Switzerland
Amt für Kultur Kanton Bern, Switzerland
Migros, Switzerland

Distribution Switzerland







black & white


90 min.

ISAN 0000-0000-67D6-0000-V-0000-0000-I

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)


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


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


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)

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