A Matter of Life and Death (1946 – Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)


It begins with the infinite and quickly comes to an end.  It will continue like this, disorientating you, never letting you rest.  One moment you’re in a garden and the next you’re in heaven.  Life is like that.  To anybody else you’re just walking down a street, but in your mind (the only true place), you’re so far away.  Black and white becomes Glorious Technicolor™.  Heaven is in black and white – after all, its ethics are that much more manageable than what we have to live with here on Earth.

Here we have to fall in love.

The beauty and simplicity of the opening titles and overture are violently corrupted as war enters the frame.  The voiceover (the divine and sublime – a reminder of the rumoured existence of god – who will be notable only in his benign absence from the proceedings) regales us with the splendour of the cosmos.  A splendour we will never get to see as we destroy each other over our petty squabbles of land and ideology.   Isn’t that the truth?  That it is more likely that we will annihilate each other before we reach the vast expanse of outer space.

And a single life (the most important thing we know) is about to be extinguished by this violent intrusion.  With a steadiness that can only come with someone knowing for the first time in his life what will happen next (the end of it) he speaks into his radio.

“Position ‘nil”

A list of positions, political and personal, none of which that capture a person spark across the night sky.  Heard by a radio operator standing vigil for the return of the airmen.  Fewer return than depart.  She falls in love the moment she hears him quote Raleigh. In quoting poetry he reveals that at the age of 27 he is already aware that the promise and potential of life has left him.  He will never be a poet.  Never tell his mother how he feels.  Never fall in love…

He’s dying amongst torn metal, bloodied corpses and flame.  We never see what he can see.  They both look out and we never know what they are looking at (us, the audience?).  Each other?  Those close-ups are framed as if they’re having a conversation next to each other.

The burden falls to her to say the things he never could say.  It will be a burden, carrying his last words with her for the rest of her life.  She holds his soul in her mind – his words will rattle around her head as she goes about the ordinariness of everyday life, growing old in a cottage.  In the quiet moments the words will come back to her, an echo of a life.  Her lips tremble with the responsibility.

He’s so decent that he doesn’t want to frighten her.  He’s as close to a hero as can get.  But he isn’t one.  The first thing he asks of her is if she’s pretty.  That’s still his first concern when he’s talking to a woman who will hold his soul for the rest of her life.  Is she pretty?  He tries to control the moment – let me die in my own way – never for a second will he let the woman take the lead.  The violence of his sexism is as violent as the war around him.

But it is divine.  The last gasp of life is to reach out to someone.  To risk it all.  To lose yourself.  Never attempted in life but only in the movies.

“I love you June.  You’re life and I’m leaving you.”

And grace enters the frame.

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