special-event-a-matter-of-life-and-depth-dec-6thOriginally conceived as a piece of wartime propaganda to improve relations between British and American forces, the end result proved to be a landmark of inventive film-making. Powell and Pressburger were at the forefront of cinematic innovation at the end of the war years and we have already screened six of their films. The use of both Technicolor and black and white footage aids the visual narration of the terrestrial and ethereal worlds, as our hero Peter Carter (David Niven) pleads his case before his spirit world peers. “The special effects in Stairway to Heaven [its original US Title] show a universe that never existed until this movie was made, and the vision is breathtaking in its originality,” Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times. (Cert U)
Dirs: Michael Powell/ Emeric Pressburger 100 mins UK 1946
We welcome back Prof. Ian Christie of Birkbeck College to introduce this screening, which will begin at 7.30 p.m.

Programme Notes

A Matter of Life and Death
UK 1946 102 minutes Cert. U

A Matter of Life and Death (or Depth, as our programme succinctly puts it – due to a typo) was originally billed for the American audience as Stairway to Heaven and yet ‘Depth’ is not so far from an apt description of this film.

Rated as one of the finest of Powell and Pressburger’s canon of films (and we have to date shown six of the others including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), Black Narcissus (1946) and
The Red Shoes (1948)), it was made at the request of the Ministry of Information with the aim of propagating a sense of camaraderie between Great Britain and our American allies, but ends up as a combination of fantasy, wit and charming drama.

Who could have conceived such a bizarre situation where our hero has be judged, Saint Peter-like, as to whether he should live or die by a motley tribunal of world philosophers? Should love conquer death? Did this film inspire the songwriter of Stairway to Heaven? Has director Powell made heaven at least as convincing as earth? Does the switch between the celestial scenes in monochrome and the terrestrial scenes in colour serve to accentuate the difference in the two states? Are the directors taking a sly sideswipe at certain national stereotypes? Tonight we have Professor Ian Christie, film critic and lecturer at Birkbeck College returning to ABCD to answer these questions and more.

With photography by award-winning Jack Cardiff and a stellar cast of contemporary doyens – such as Roger Livesey, Raymond Massey, Marius Goring, Robert Coote and Richard Attenborough – be prepared for an enthralling yet intriguing walk on the fantastical stairway between life and the hereafter.

S/L Peter David Carter – David Niven
June – Kim Hunter
Dr Frank Reeves – Roger Livesey
Abraham Farlan – Raymond Massey
Conductor 71 – Marius Goring
F/O Bob Trubshawe – Robert Coote
The Judge – Abraham Sofaer
An Angel – Kathleen Byron
An English Pilot – Richard Attenborough

Directors – Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Screenplay – Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Cinematography – Jack Cardiff
Editing – Reginald Mills
Original Music – Allan Gray
Production Design – Alfred Junge
Producer – Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, George R Busby

This film was the first film ever chosen for a Royal Command Film Performance on the 1st November 1946.


“Wonderful film – stiff upper lips much in evidence.”

“Beautifully crafted film! I wonder what our parents thought of it in the 1940s.”

“Lovely film! Very helpful to have our speaker point out many things I might have missed.”

“Even better the second time – and the introductory talk gave us more to look out for.”

“Astounding. I wonder if people know that Byron used this earthly-trial-in-Heaven device in A Vision of Judgement, written in 1821?”

“Very enjoyable fantasy on a grand scale!”

“Both clever and engaging …. with Heaven by Fritz Lang? Loved it.”

“The cast read like a history of British cinema – fabulous! Loved it – thanks.”

“Great introduction to the film by the Birkbeck prof.”

“Excellent introduction by Prof. Ian Christie.”

“Seen it several times before but enjoyed it much more this time. The tremendously interesting intro. by Prof. Ian Christie shed all sorts of new light on it, in terms of making the film more understandable. Oddly, the USA-UK relationship analogy (or allegory) seemed more strained the more I thought about it.”

“A strange and beautiful film – a fantasy in all respects. Amazing special effects.”

“The film worked at many levels – modern and traditional, witty and serious. I liked it a lot.”

“Love conquers all! A good Powell and Pressburger choice. What a pity Ian couldn’t have stayed longer.”

“With an excellent talk by Ian Christie, the film became an extra-ordinary tale with a strong Anglo-American message, particularly in the court scene.”

“Much funnier and wittier than I remembered from viewing it on TV.”

“Per Ardua ad Astra!”

“Interesting – Heaven was rather like a concentration camp.”

“Well acted propaganda”


A:28, B:6, C:2, D:0, E:0 to give 93%