A Matter of Life and Death: A Warning from Heaven

Ahead of the re-release of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Technicolor masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death - presented in a stunning 4K restoration for a special Christmas run in cinemas from this week - Dr Charles Drazin from Queen Mary, University of London writes about the continued relevance of its message of international cooperation for the sake of peace.

A Matter of Life and Death began shooting immediately after the defeat of Japan at the tail-end of World War II. It was ‘a story of two worlds’ that marked the transition from the wartime that Britain had known for six years to a future peace, which it could at last begin to imagine. It was a romantic fantasy, yet had an important contemporary message.  

In the months that followed the invasion of Europe, relations between the Britain and the United States had become increasingly frosty as the wartime allies found themselves at odds in their thoughts about how to build the peace. ‘We must not let those differences divide us,’ declared President Roosevelt. ‘In the future world […] power politics must not be a controlling factor in international relations.’  It was time for the Allies to reaffirm their shared values, to reassert their belief that the best way to build the peace was through continued partnership and cooperation. Here was the basis for Powell and Pressburger’s story of a young Englishman and American woman whose love for each other risks being thwarted through a cosmic misunderstanding.


Images courtesy of Park Circus/ITV Studios

For a creative partnership that routinely used the distinctive joint credit, “Written, Produced and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger”, there was a personal element to this tale of different nations working together. Powell was an Englishman who served his apprenticeship in the cinema at the Victorine Studios in Nice, France, under the guidance of Irish-born director Rex Ingram who had first made his name in America. Emeric Pressburger was a Hungarian Jew who had been a screenwriter at UFA in Germany until the rise of Nazism in the early 1930s turned him into a refugee. A major collaborator on A Matter of Life and Death –  the man who built Heaven –  was the great German art director Alfred Junge (pictured above), who had designed most of their previous films.

The cosmopolitan nature of their production company, the Archers, offered its own tribute to the virtues of ‘freedom of movement’ in wartime years when there was no movement. One of the attractions of Junge's heaven, which occupied the largest sound stage at Denham Studios, is that it has no borders. All the peoples and races of the world sit side by side in a vast celestial arena that is evocative of the chamber that Oscar Niemeyer built a few years later for the General Assembly of the United Nations. The film played with time but was also a little ahead of its time. We can easily imagine the judge, on his high dais, reading out to the court the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that would be ratified two years after the film’s release: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’


Images courtesy of Park Circus/ITV Studios

The romantic whimsy with which Powell and Pressburger sugar-coated a serious message makes A Matter of Life and Death the perfect fantasy film for Christmas – Britain's answer to It's a Wonderful Life –  but its inspiration lay in the willingness to address the reality of a war-torn world. A documentary spirit enthuses the entire enterprise. In telling the story of a traumatised airman who is ‘seeing things’, it goes to extraordinary lengths to get right the way he would see things. As Oliver Sacks wrote in the Lancet, it is ‘a first-class piece of film, full of human drama with, if one has eyes to see it, a minutely worked-out neurological basis’. The same thirst for accuracy went into depicting wartime England.  Once Powell and Pressburger have taken us on a gentle stroll through the universe and the solar system, the opening image on earth is of June in the control tower of a US airbase. Every detail – her uniform, the microphone she holds, the Anglepoise lamps that surround her, the wooden console on which she leans – were reconstructed from research photographs of the real thing. Peter Carter’s burning Lancaster bomber, the Nissen hut hospital, the items in its operating theatre where this matter of life and death plays itself out –  all were recreated with an exacting commitment to fidelity.

Powell and Pressburger have now long since passed through the pearly monochrome gates, but with this extraordinary, beautiful, film they offer a timely warning from heaven for our Post-Truth Age. 

Dr Charles Drazin is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies, Queen Mary University of London, and a Park Circus Ambassador

A Matter of Life and Death is now playing for select screenings at Curzon Cinemas nationwide. Dr Charles Drazin introduces the screening on Friday 8 December at Curzon BloomsburySaturday 23 December's screening at Curzon Canterbury will be introduced by Eddie McMillan and Bryan Hawkins from Canterbury Christ Church University.