A Matter of Life and Death

"One of the most beloved British films ever is now even more lush, more gorgeous, more humanist in a glorious new restored edition." - Time

A Matter of Live and Death is the utterly unique, enduringly rich and strange romantic fantasia from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The film begins with a sensational flourish: a nuclear explosion that destroys a solar system. We start by drifting through outer space, accompanied by a droll narrative voice, commenting “Someone must have been messing about with the uranium atom.” The eerie casualness of that revelation sets the otherworldly tone for the rest of what follows.

Then we find ourselves on Earth in 1945, where RAF pilot Peter Carter, played by David Niven, is flying back to Britain after a bombing raid, losing height, badly hit. He has presumably been attacking German cities, and it has to be noticed that Germans are not represented here, either in this world, or the next. Carter’s parachute has been damaged; he knows he is going to die, and with impossibly dashing flair, he radios his final position to an astonished American radio operator called June, played by Kim Hunter, asks her to contact his family and flirts with her. June and Peter fall in love at that moment.

The miracle is that Peter seems to survive, staggering out of the sea. He finds June, and with the help of a local doctor, he is gradually nursed back to health. Yet an emissary from heaven, in the form of a dandified pre-revolutionary French aristocrat played by Marius Goring, informs Peter that his survival is a mere clerical error and he is expected back in the afterlife right away. Peter complains that now he has fallen in love he is entitled to remain below. A huge trial is in prospect, and a prosecuting counsel is chosen.

A Matter of Life and Death is a visually extraordinary film: a gorgeous artificiality is created by Alfred Junge’s production design and Jack Cardiff’s vivid Technicolor photography. Counterintuitively, the heaven scenes are in black and white and Earth is in colour. The modernist architecture of heaven is something to rival Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the “stairway to heaven” sequence (which gave this film its US title) is narcotically weird. Even down on Earth, and without the angelic visits, things have a distinct surreality.

Powell and Pressburger are telling America and the world that just as Squadron Leader Peter Carter does not want go to heaven, so Britain itself is not dead; it does not deserve to be consigned to history along with those effete and irrelevant periwigged Frenchmen. Britain lives – in partnership with America.


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