A Matter of Life and Death

Institute History

  • 1991 Sundance Film Festival


Released in the U.S. as Stairway to Heaven, this feature was originally envisioned as a film about Anglo-American relations during the war. It is aptly described by William Everson: "In retrospect the film comes over rather more as a climax to a whole series of wartime films in which the reality of death was dealt with via the conforming medium of fantasy . . . lid manages the neat trick of being intellectually stimulating and philosophical and at the same time optimistic, moving and amusing."

Niven plays an R.A.F. pilot who must bail out of his plane without a parachute and survives (barely), but is then caught between this world and the afterlife. Having eluded what should have been his death, he appeals his case in a heavenly trial which will decide his fate. This fantasy is both outrageous and technically sublime, including the "stairway to heaven" sequence characterized as a combination of the "Hollywood gaudy" and the "painterly surreal."

— Geoffrey Gilmore

Screening Details

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