Whilst it is always fairly clear that we are supposed to see the heaven which Peter envisages as a construct of his own imagination, there is nevertheless a sense in which it broaches real and universal questions of what lies beyond the surface appearance of reality and what might endure beyond death. When Dr Reeves asks Peter ‘do you believe in the survival of human personality after death?’ he replies ‘I thought you said you said you’d read my verses.’ Dr Reeves himself has ‘thought about it too much’, an admission of morbidity which foreshadows his own death. That death , when it comes, is all too palpably physical. We are spared the sight of Dr Reeves after his flame-engulfed crash, but the look of reflexive revulsion on the face of the ambulance driver, who is presumably no stranger to disaster, tells us all we need to know. It is particularly upsetting to realise that the Doctor upon whom Peter relies and whom we have come to see as a noble and self-effacingly authoritative soul has not only died, but done so in a fashion which has destroyed his body. He has been definitively erased from the Earth in a manner all too familiar to people coming to the end of a massively destructive war. Seeing him restored whole and unbelemished in the next world therefore carries a great emotional charge. It suggests something about the immortality and endurance of the human spirit, that element which transcends the physical. It can be no coincidence that the person who he is chatting with and who is clearly a fellow spirit turns out to be John Bunyan, the author of another classic English account of the journey of a soul.
A Matter of Life and Death is never explicitly Christian. It takes a more humanist approach to the religious spirit, suggesting the endless quest for knowledge and enlightenment which underpins the persistent need to find meaning, connection and a continuity of existence in the universe. That this is an ongoing quest is made clear by Peter’s rejection as defendants of the monumental philosophical giants which pass him at the side of the ascending staircase. These overbearing pieces of towering statuary represent the danger of being trapped in ossified systems of belief which crush the individual quest for knowledge and understanding based on personal experience and feeling. Peter has absorbed their knowledge but needs someone to represent him who knows of his feelings and the particularities of his time. ‘What do they know about the problems of today?’ he asks of these marble giants. He needs ‘someone with his head screwed on’. Naturally he chooses Dr Reeves, who replies ‘I hoped he would’ with a wry smile which covers his evident pride at being given this honour.
The core of mystical vision is the ideal of tracing connections, the unification of seemingly irreconcilable opposites into a transcendent whole. This is really the structure of the entire film. The unification of nations, of languages, of the individual and the masses, of tradition and modernism, will and determinism, objective vision and the imagination, the great and the small. This is represented on a cosmic scale by our opening tour of the universe, spiralling from the widest perspective into the particularity of a moment as experienced by two individuals. It is also embodied on a smaller scale by Doctor Reeves’ camera obscura, through which he observes the life of the village (itself a microcosm of England as a whole). As he so eloquently puts it, this is a visionary perspective through which ‘you see it all clearly and at once, as in a poet’s eye.’ It is also, of course, analogous to the way in which we watch a film and it is through this art that Powell and Pressburger effect their transcendent, unifying vision. Dr Reeves’ diagnosis of Peter’s hallucinations also describes our experience of the film and of cinema in general. ‘A series of highly organised hallucinations comparable to an experience of actual life…a combination of vision and hearing and idea.’
It is a mark of a great screenwriter that you come away from a film with lines of dialogue firmly embedded in your memory: ‘Politics – Conservative by nature, Labour by experience.’; ‘Boy oh boy, home was nothing like this’ – ‘mine was’; ‘stupidity has saved many a man from going mad’; ‘If he gets onto politics, I’m sunk’ – ‘who isn’t’; ‘One is starved for Technicolor up there.’
It is a mark of a great director that scenes live on in your mind’s eye: Trubshaw and the heavenly receptionist looking through a porthole window onto a bureaucratic cityscape; Peter wandering over the sands and dunes of a heavenly beach, morning sea-mist drifting away behind him; Peter and Conductor 71 discussing philosophers as their monumental statues drift past on an endlessly ascending escalator; Entering an inner world of pulsing blood vessels as a giant eyelid closes, before colour leaches away and the moving dots below resolve themselves into crowds of people walking to take their places in a vast arena.
A writer/director collaboration which attains true greatness is one which occurs when the creators of these separate elements of magic know and communicate with each other to create a work of art which exceeds what either could do individually. This integration of two very different perspectives (Michael Powell an Englishman to the core, Emeric Pressburger a well-travelled Hungarian émigré) into a transcendent whole is embedded in the very themes and structure of A Matter of Life and Death. It can thus stand as an artistic testament to their partnership, a film which acts as a signature of the most remarkable British film-makers of all time: Powell and Pressburger
Now give yourself a treat and go and see the film.