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Original (in Norwegian) at
Translation of original Norwegian review by Kate Lambert

A Matter of Life and Death

A Matter of Life and Death UK, 1946
Directed by / script by Michael Powell / Emeric Pressburger
With David Niven, Kim Hunter, Richard Attenborough and others
104 min 35mm, colour, in English with Norwegian subtitles
Distributed by Norwegian Federation of Film Societies, NFK

We are in England in the Second World War. Pilot Peter Carter is on his way home from a bombing raid over Germany in a burning plane. Peter spends what he believes will be the last minutes of his life talking about love and poetry over the radio to American radio operator June. Then he has to jump - without a parachute - directly over the English Channel.

To Peter's great astonishment he realises not only is he still alive but he has been washed up on a beach not far from his airbase. This "miracle" proves to be a blunder on the part of the conductor who was sent to take Peter to "the other world". Peter Carter should in fact have died that morning but his conductor failed to find him due to thick fog over England.

The extra time Peter gains due to this "heavenly mix-up" he spends falling in love with June. And when the conductor eventually catches up with him and points out that he is already entered in the register up there, Peter is far from willing to accompany him.

The main event in the film thus becomes the depiction of Peter's battle to remain among the living, which reaches its climax in a grandiose court case in Heaven in which Peter has to argue why he should be allowed to change his destiny and continue to live.

A Matter of Life and Death is a story of a great love which overcomes everything in its path. By the standards of today's media society the story may sometimes seem banal and full of childish innocence but it has several layers of meaning and offers a number of interesting interpretations. The film was in fact commissioned by the British government, of all people.

After the Second World War the global power balance had shifted considerably. Despite the countries having been allies, relations between the crumbling British Empire and the new superpower of the US were far from ideal. In this context the well-known, respected, conservative and sophisticated directors Powell and Pressburger were commissioned to create a film which would help to improve this relationship.

Not everyone was pleased about the rather unconventional way the pair went about the assignment. The film is full of references to other works of art and contemporary British politics. This in itself is nothing new for Powell and Pressburger, whose films must be considered to be highly allegorical.

One of the ways in which the relationship with the US is portrayed is through the choice of Abraham Farlan, the first American to be shot by an English bullet in the American War of Independence, as counsel for the prosecution in Peter's court case. This leads to attention being paid to the injustices the British have committed against peoples all over the world.

The depiction of the differences between life on Earth and life after death aroused a great deal of controversy on the film's release. The image of Heaven - here a centralised, planned and bureaucratic society - struck at the heart of the debate on the reconstruction of Britain after the war, not to mention corresponding to the picture people had of the Soviet Union.

The relationship between Heaven and Earth can be seen as a comparison of European methods of government with Heaven standing for the Southern European, law-based model where it doesn't matter what you do as long as you obey the law. On Earth, however, it is the Anglo-Saxon/Nordic ideal which prevails with its liberalism, democracy and individualism. Here interaction is not characterised by authoritarianism but by open, generous friendship as evinced by the lovers June and Peter.

But Powell and Pressburger have more to say. The battle between life and death is both a physical and an intellectual one. This pragmatic approach whereby problems should always be seen from every angle is something which recurs in all Powell's films. It goes with the typical (?) British attitude of constantly remaining balanced, or moderate, in ones life and work. This virtue can be seen in the complex character of Peter. He may be a bombing pilot but he has studied history, plays chess and writes poetry - although not too modern in style.

The men behind the film, Powell and Pressburger, were legendary in their time under the nickname "The Archers". They produced a number of films, reaching their artistic and commercial peak in the late 1940s. Their most famous work includes films such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp , Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. Powell continued to make films after The Archers split up and in 1960 produced the ill-received Peeping Tom (TFK 1990), a psychological thriller which has since confirmed the great impact Powell had on subsequent filmmakers.

One of Powell and Pressburger's particular trademarks is mixing popular culture and the avant garde. The same balance I have highlighted above can be found in the other "Archers" productions, in which imagination and art are compared with the rationality and realism of life. While their films are geared towards an educated audience, their stories have always appealed to a broader public and all have been major successes.


Network group 20/1/1994, www@nvg.ntnu.nofeoup

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