FEB 3, 2017
When the award-winning wildlife cameraman Rolf Steinmann moved to Bavaria last year, he immediately decided to make a film about the area—but he’s taking his time. We join him on the hunt
On a cold morning in February, Rolf Steinmann drove to the base of Wendelstein Mountain, a 1,800-meter-tall pile in the Bavarian Alps, in southern Germany, stepped into a cable car, and hoped for the best. Wendelstein is the largest mountain in the area, and because its peak is exposed and higher than those around it, it is popular among tourists for its panoramic views. On a good day, when the weather is clear, visitors can see past high-altitude ski slopes, sheer limestone cliffs, dense Alpine forest, and silty foothills, all the way to the valley floor below, which in the winter is green and brown and pockmarked with heaps of snow. They can also see animals, but only if they are lucky: chamois, perhaps, small, shy, goatlike antelope; or, rarer still, mountain hare, which in the winter are white and nearly impossible to spot in the snow. Steinmann, an Emmy Award-nominated wildlife cameraman who films animals around the world for big-budget broadcasters such as the BBC, was looking for the antelope. But, if he were being honest, he’d take anything he could get.
Steinmann has been filming in and around the Leitzach valley on and off since August 2015, when he moved here from Munich, the city in which he was born. On average, he spends eight months of the year on commercial jobs elsewhere. The other four are spent at home in Germany, in what he calls “a state of reacclimatization.” The footage he has been capturing in Bavaria—rolls shot in the mountains and pastures that surround his home—will eventually form a new short documentary that he is making about the region, which he hopes will communicate its atmosphere through “its animals, its landscapes, and its people.”Steinmann has made a career out of traveling to extreme locations to capture incredibly specific acts of animal behavior, but those trips are often quick and highly pressurized. (One example: he was recently given eight weeks in Tibet to film, among other events, a Tibetan antelope giving birth, which is very rarely caught on tape.) For his film about Bavaria, Steinmann is opting to take his time, eschewing script and schedule, allowing narratives to unfold naturally—a rare and idiosyncratic approach that, in both attitude and method, makes him a progressive outlier among his peers. The process is at least in part a rebuke of the commercial wildlife film industry, which he feels is placing too much emphasis on quickly made, larger, and falsely spectacular productions, and not enough on the depth required to affect an increasingly savvy modern audience. “I think that’s what we’re missing in television right now,” Steinmann says, referring to the kind of work in which it is obvious that a filmmaker has immersed himself in a place and its culture, thereby allowing him to share valuable knowledge with viewers. “What is so important is time. Over long periods of time, you just connect.”
In order to achieve any degree of authenticity, Steinmann believes, his project will take at least three years to complete, during which time he will accrue footage whenever he can and compile, rather laboriously, a final cut in the editing suite. For that reason, he is not overly picky about what he films, or when, or even from where. When at home in Germany, he hikes daily, often for six or seven hours straight and regularly without food, on the lookout for scenes that he believes will represent the region in some way. Sometimes he films during a backcountry trek; the next day he’ll notice something from his car. There are days when he does not feel the need to record anything at all, although they are uncommon. Roe deer grazing on a snowy pasture: incredible. Foxes gallivanting across muddy banks: perfect. A slow-moving brook catching the last light of a dying day: film it, let’s see.When the cable car reached the top of the mountain, Steinmann’s primary objective shifted. Rather than searching for chamois, he began to film the landscape, panning carefully from east to west. A layer of fog had submerged the valley, obscuring from view anything more than a few hundred meters below, and cloud had descended overhead, capturing Wendelstein’s peak in a sandwich of mist from which only the crowns of nearby mountains emerged. Cable car staff had told him that this particular kind of weather was extremely rare—one man, who looked to be about 30 years old, had seen it “perhaps two or three times in my life”—so for Steinmann the opportunity was too important, and previously underwitnessed, to pass up. For more than 40 minutes, he filmed from a lookout point, documenting the view in all directions, so the footage could be used in a final edit. The chamois would have to wait.
As a child, Steinmann, who is 35 years old, had no particular ambition to be a cameraman. His interest in nature developed as a teenager, when his mother gave him a coffee-table book about Alaska that instilled in him a desire to experience the wilderness. “I wanted to live in a cabin,” Steinmann says. “That was my dream. I wanted to get away from civilization.” As a 17-year-old, he jumped at the chance to take part in a school exchange to Norway. The following summer he went back to cycle through the country. And then, as an 18-year-old, he spent six months cycling from his doorstep to the North Cape, in Norway, and back, solo, his clothing stored in a black trash bag on his back. While on that trip, he encountered foxes, and later a lynx; on a subsequent journey, he was for several days accompanied by a reindeer—all “amazing experiences.” Steinmann describes this period of travel as amounting to a personal and professional turning point. In Scandinavia, what was once a desire to broadly experience the wilderness developed into a fascination with the animals that lived within it. On his next trip, he ditched his bike and walked, focusing less on seeking grand vistas and more on creating scenarios in which he could share intimate moments with local wildlife. Every time he returned to Munich, he would turn on the television and watch nature documentaries, but films made by other people could satisfy his appetite for adventure for only so long.
The idea of actually filming what he saw came later, as a by-product of his trips. Steinmann never trained formally as a cameraman. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he decided against studying film, preferring instead to learn from older professionals on location. In his early twenties, he assisted experienced filmmakers while developing his own techniques and processes. Soon he was commissioned by producers working for German television and, later, for the BBC, Discovery, and Disney. The jobs offered validation—and put food on the table—but they were still work. The act of being in the wilderness has always come first. “For me it was always about escapism,” Steinmann says. To be “away from people, in nature. That was a very strong longing.”
Steinmann has since filmed a variety of animals in a variety of locations. He has worked with several different kinds of wolf, bear, and antelope. He has filmed coyotes in the United States, wild dogs in India, baboons in Zimbabwe, ibex in Israel, bonobos in Congo, flamingos in Mexico, and crested black macaques—“a very cool monkey,” he says—in Asia. He has traveled by boat to Funk Island, a remote, perilously rocky outcrop in the Atlantic, to film the ocean’s largest colony of guillemots; and to Sri Lanka to film the world’s largest leopards. For six weeks last year, he filmed musk oxen in the Arctic Circle to create a personal work titled In Between, an elegiac seven-minute short that bemoans the effects of global warming. And between 2009 and 2010, he spent several months in Patagonia filming mountain lions, an experience he describes, rather more drolly than you might expect, as being “fairly intense.”
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Steinmann’s commercial commissions continue to take him to faraway places, but he now recognizes that those locations are becoming easier to reach and thus feel less and less exotic. On various drives through the Leitzach valley, he shared an observation repeatedly to illustrate this point. “Say you are in the Arctic, filming polar bears,” he said. “What do you see when you turn around? Twenty other people photographing exactly the same thing, right there next to you.” As far as Steinmann is aware, he is the only wildlife cameraman making such an in-depth film about the Leitzach valley (or any other quiet, picturesque Bavarian valley, for that matter). Rather than working in what is generally considered to be the wild, he is turning his lens on what we believe to be familiar, taking the time to reveal that which has been under our noses all along. No need to travel to the Arctic when you have unclaimed territory right there on your doorstep, Steinmann says. Bavaria is the new frontier. You can be a pioneer at home, too.
Later that February morning, Steinmann began his search for chamois, launching a hike from the Wendelstein summit into the snowy backcountry. He was not alone. The previous day, Steinmann had met Hans Ziegler, a 79-year-old hunter who has dedicated the past 60 years of his life to the region’s conservation. Ziegler had agreed to take Steinmann to points on the mountain at which it is often possible to observe antelope from close quarters, and soon the pair were wading through soft, knee-deep snow. For the next five hours, Ziegler—stick in his hand, hat on his head, no gloves despite the cold—described in detail inconspicuous elements of the surroundings, stopping every so often to identify a trail. The pair discovered chamois, which are usually difficult to spot, at three separate locations. Steinmann got his shots.
Because he is still relatively new to the area, Steinmann is reliant on locals such as Ziegler for information, much like he is on producers and guides for his commercial jobs. When the pair first met, at Ziegler’s home, they discussed at length the habits of animals in the region and specific places in which Steinmann might be able to capture them on film. Before long, Ziegler had begun to share a great archive of animal ephemera: eggshells, feathers, mammal teeth, dried feces, all plucked from valley floors and mountain slopes and now stored tidily in cardboard boxes. The conversation ran a full two hours, and Steinmann appeared delighted throughout it. He later referred to Ziegler as a “human encyclopedia” and vowed to spend as much time with him as possible.
But Ziegler is not Steinmann’s only source. In the three days I spent with Steinmann, he met hikers, hunters, and local dairy farmers, all of whom shared with him valuable information about the land and, on at least three occasions, invited him into their homes. In the seven months Steinmann has lived in the area, he has come to realize that a documentary about it will be nothing without a record of its people—Bavarians who know and love the region, and who are as much a contributing part of the environment as the animals that also call the place home—and that only time will afford him the opportunity to delve deeply into their lives. He has plans to film Ziegler and the farmers he has met; at one point on our trip, he filmed a local schoolgirl whose hair had been tied into decorative knots in the Bavarian tradition. This focus indicates a shift in Steinmann’s approach as a cameraman—he very rarely documents people. But it also represents a wider change in his perception of the relationship between humanity and the environment. The great wildlife films are no longer just about animals, he says: they are about us, too. At one point on the Wendelstein summit, a group of German schoolchildren in fluorescent alpine gear exited the cable car and suddenly filled the icy air with whoops and hollers. Steinmann immediately trained his camera on the group, believing the moment to be typical of local life. “This is the real situation,” Steinmann said, placing significant emphasis on the word real. The children moved together to the lookout point at which Steinmann had earlier been filming, but they seemed quickly bored, and many descended the steps within a minute or two. Most were less interested in the vistas than the ice that had formed in frozen drips from the summit’s barriers, which they proceeded to eradicate with gloved hands.
While filming, Steinmann is on constant alert for signs of animal activity. When hiking past forest, he is in the habit of pointing out trees and branches that have been gnawed at by beavers living nearby.
Evidence of beaver activity throughout the Leitzach valley.
Wood shavings in small heaps are a big giveaway.
Although Steinmann has filmed some of the most dangerous and exotic animals in the world, he is thrilled to spend time with any animal, whether it’s a beaver in the water or a chamois up on the Alpine slopes.
The next morning, Steinmann drove through the Leitzach valley, winding past dairy farms and ornate wooden homes, vast green-and-white fields and thick, dark forests. He was acting on a tip. A hiker had notified him of beaver activity—the gnawed edges of trees, a large collection of twigs and mud assembled into a dam, telltale signs, both—and pointed him toward the banks of two small, slow-moving streams. Steinmann wanted to have a look.
Steinmann has filmed some of the world’s most exotic animals, but that day, in thick fog and considerable cold, it seemed as though nothing would excite him more than encountering a semiaquatic rodent, especially with the pressure off. “Nature has to deliver for you to deliver,” Steinmann says of exploits out in the field. And, even then, “that doesn’t mean that you actually deliver—framing has to be right, panning, light. It’s so stressful.” For inspiration, Steinmann regularly looks to documentary filmmakers from the 1980s and 1990s who often spent years focusing on a species and its environment, amassing considerable knowledge and generating output with genuine depth. These works—by filmmakers like Owen Newman, who has spent much of a revered career documenting East Africa; and Ernst Arendt and Hans Schweiger, a German duo who, from the late 1970s onward, have made more than 50 films—not only depict specific animal behaviors but place them in a broader environmental context, often very gradually. Steinmann considers himself to be a continuation of that lineage, though he doesn’t have to travel to reach the locations he is exploring, because he lives within them.
When he reached the streams, Steinmann immediately identified signs of the beaver, and soon he was at the dam. He removed his camera from his backpack, set it up on a tripod, pointed it at the water, and started to film. Little of note was happening. There was no beaver (the rodent is mostly nocturnal), no significant display of animal behavior, no overdramatized moment to satisfy an audience that is increasingly difficult to impress. Beyond the dam was a grassy plain much like others in the area; Wendelstein Mountain loomed in the distance, its peak veiled by cloud. The view was typically Bavarian, but Steinmann could also have been over the border, in Austria, or in Scandinavia, or in the Canadian Rockies. Still, Steinmann, who has filmed some of world’s most exotic and dangerous animals in some of its most remote and awe-inspiring locations, appeared utterly obsessed, his right eye pressed firmly against the viewfinder. “I’ll just film it,” he said. “And then let’s see.”