A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Michael Powell | 1hr 44min

When it comes to the formal technique of shifting from black-and-white to colour that Michael Powell so effectively uses in A Matter of Life and Death, two other films come to mind – The Wizard of Oz and Stalker. All three movies are masterpieces and use this switch to contrast reality with a metaphysical dream space, and yet Powell’s work is using this device to an entirely different effect. Here, it is the Earth that is flooded with beautiful technicolour, and the surreal afterlife that is shot in black-and-white. Where The Wizard of Oz and Stalker celebrate the magic of other worlds, A Matter of Life and Death is in love with the joys of living.

Brilliant, vivid Technicolor photography on Earth, very distinguished from the monochrome afterlife.

The scenes of the afterlife are gorgeous in their own way though. It is made up of impressive set pieces, the two most notable being the stairway to heaven adorned with statues of historical figures, and the gigantic amphitheatre sitting inside a spiral galaxy. It isn’t exactly surrealist cinema, but there are unique images here that would not look out of place in a Luis Buñuel film, with the metaphor of the stairway entering the frozen operating room especially making powerful and imaginative visual statement.

One of Powell’s greatest set pieces, the stairway to heaven lined with statues of historical icons.
The stairway to heaven meets the operating theatre, one fate being decided in material and immaterial realms. Fantastic surrealism in this gorgeous finale.

In fact, the editing preceding this moment is impressive in itself, foreshadowing the eventual meeting of the afterlife and the real world. Peter’s fate is being decided in both places at once, by both brain surgeons and a jury of deceased men. It is left deliberately vague as to which group holds more power, as the entire afterlife could be all in Peter’s imagination. But the point remains – the metaphysical and physical worlds are inextricably bound to each other.

It is a tricky formal balance that Powell maintains in painting out this relationship, with both always offering counterpoints to each other. If life wins in one moment, then death will later hit back in a similar manner. This isn’t just in Peter’s story, but in Dr Reeves’ own fatal motorbike accident, foreshadowed earlier by a narrowly missed collision. Each of these characters’ lives is positioned on a knifepoint, and it is this fragility that makes them all the more precious.

A precarious balance between life and death in a simple, elegant transition. Powell starts with a close-up on this delicate flower on Earth, and then as his camera pulls back he washes away all colours in his shot, and the scene shifts to the afterlife without so much as a cut.

Peter sinks into the background in the final act which suddenly zooms out and adjusts to a massive scope, giving enormous weight to his life. His agency is taken away, and his fate rests in the hands of both friends and enemies with the power to grant him either life or death. All of history comes to bear witness to the decision, with rows upon rows of deceased people from different periods and cultures watching to see whether he will come and join their ranks.

Epic scope and scale – the people and civilisations of human history come to bear witness to this monumental trial.

The random Midsummer Night’s Dream reference serves to emphasise the afterlife as a relaxed, comedic, pastoral place, and much like the final lines of the play, A Matter of Life and Death essentially tells us in fewer words:

“If we shadows have offended,

Think but this and all is mended,

That you have but slumber’d here,

While these visions did appear.”

In short, everything we might have just watch may or may not be a dream. That will be left up to us.

Most of all though, A Matter of Life and Death is an allegory, manifesting the deciders of our fate in the afterlife. The romance never develops past the initial honeymoon phase, closing the film on the sweet, final words:

“We won.”
“I know, darling.”

And leaving them at that point is absolutely the right choice. Peter and June’s futures are undefined, but as long as they are alive it is in their hands.

Michael Powell’s long dissolves, blending images to create a masterful composition of faces.

A Matter of Life and Death is currently available to stream on SBS On Demand, and available to rent or buy on iTunes.

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