Monday, 5 December 2016

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Many years ago a friend said, after I had insisted that he watch A Matter of Life and Death (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger 1946), that it had a different perspective from how to view the world, and that it consequently made the spectators view the world from a new perspective too. I have always felt it was a good way of describing the film, and the films of Powell and Pressburger in general. There is always more to the world than meets the eye they seem to be saying, something I have discussed before regarding their film A Canterbury Tale (1944). Now I have had my students watch A Matter of Life and Death, and afterwards they spent two hours talking about it freely. It was great fun.


The film begins with a British pilot flying towards home, the only remaining crew member on a Lancaster bomber returning from a raid over Germany, and right before he has to jump out without a parachute he talks on the radio to an American woman working on a British airfield; spending his last moments alive with her. What happens in the rest of the film is not as easy to describe. Due to a mistake from higher authorities he does not die, instead he finds himself on a beach (where he has a strange encounter with a young, naked, shepherd) and then he meets the woman whom he spoke to on the radio. When, belatedly, he is summoned to the next world he refuses to go. He was ready to die then but not now, and since they made a mistake he argues that he should be allowed to remain on earth.

This is the literal interpretation of the film. There are other possibilities, such as him having a brain injury which causes these hallucinations of another world, or that he actually died in the beginning and this is his afterlife fantasy. The film does leave it open as to what happens.

In A Matter of Life and Death, Powell and Pressburger effortlessly breaks through such conventional boundaries as death, time and space, making them seem irrelevant and transparent. Several people die in this film, death is a key subject, but when they die they are not really gone, they just move, move to another world which is a kind of secular heaven open for everyone regardless of nationality, religion or ethnicity. But they can move in our world too, at least some of them. Moving between this world and the next is here comparatively easy, there is a huge, potentially endless, escalator between the two sides, the monochrome world (which is the other world) and the Technicolor world (which is ours). But is it literally happening, or is it just in the mind of a dying man? Well, it might not matter. Who is to say what is real anyway? Not Powell and Pressburger. This is the world, or worlds, they are presenting to us and it is up to us to accept or reject them, depending upon our fears, beliefs and prejudices. This is a deeply philosophical film, as their films usually are, speculating in various ways about mind, matter, space, time, love, history and nationality. What these concepts are, what they mean, how they affect us, how they conspire to make us what we are, how they are the bedrock of humanity itself. That might sound like a lot to deal with, and Powell and Pressburger are not timid filmmakers.


Besides love and death, time is also a central aspect here. In the other world, time does not exist. Time ends when you die, and becomes separated from space. "We are talking in space, not time." as one of the agents of the other world says. He also adds "After all, what is time? A mere tyranny." When he is on earth, time stops, or rather it pauses for the people who are alive whereas it continues (since it does not exist) for those who are dead. After you die you are forever exactly as you were at the moment of death, living in a constant now.

But A Matter of Life and Death is also about England, England at war (although war was over by the time the film opened). In one spectacular sequence in the beginning a main character, a doctor called Frank Reeves, is observing the small village in which he lives through a camera obscura. With it he can see everything that is going on in the village from a room in his house. In one sense he is spying, or being the eye of God, but there is nothing malevolent about it. He is not like Peeping Tom, from Powell's later film, a disturbed and homicidal man. Reeves does it out of joy and love, even though that does not prevent it from being slightly unsettling. What he is observing is Powell's England, a brief love letter to the place of his childhood, to some extent a rural fantasy (like A Canterbury Tale). This is what is contrasted with the celestial fantasy of the other world. England is also contrasted with America, of two different cultures fighting the same war. (England's colonial crimes are also brought to light, albeit briefly.)


Powell and Pressburger and their team at the Archers, such as cinematographer Jack Cardiff, production designers Alfred Junge and Hein Heckroth and editor Reginald Mills (the composer Brian Easedale had not joined them yet, he came along with the next film, Black Narcissus (1947)), have always been pushing the medium, all aspects of it, to go further and be bolder, than what might be considered possible or practical. There is such an unrestrained imagination at work here that it is thrilling just to watch and see what they are up to, how far they are willing to push things, and A Matter of Life and Death is perhaps their most audacious film. In that respect re-watching their films will always be a slightly lesser experience from one angle, because the aesthetic surprises constantly coming at you will now already have been experienced. But that does of course not mean that their films should be seen only once. The craft, the ideas, and the powerful emotions remain from one viewing to the next, in this world and in any other that might exist.


Judging by the two-hour discussion I had with the 60 students, they seemed quite taken by it, and approached it from all possible angles. The use of colour, the concept of time, the acting, ideas on nationality and heritage, narrative structure, ethics and philosophical viewpoints. I had provided them with some keywords before but they went beyond them, and everything was meticulously analysed. They also pointed out that when the "conductor," the man sent to collect the dead, first meets the pilot a game of chess is suggested, ten years before Bergman picked up the same subject. 

A Matter of Life and Death was a huge hit when it came out, on both sides of the Atlantic, and in interviews Powell often said it was his favourite among his own films. It is comforting to know that it still enthuses new generations.

1 comment:

  1. I loved the film when I saw it a couple of years ago, and I thought I would love it even more on a second viewing.

    Interesting that you focus mostly on the aspect of time. For me it was mostly about love, as in a fairy tale. At least that what was I saw at the first viewing. Now I have something to look for when I re-watch it! :-)

    Thanks for reminding me.

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