Across the Great Divide: Creating Powell and Pressburger’s Stairway to Heaven

Inside Criterion / Sneak Peeks — Jul 27, 2018


What connects this world to the next? In Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s one-of-a-kind masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death, a romantic fantasy made in the wake of World War II, it’s something simple enough: a moving staircase—albeit one of particular grandeur. As wide as a two-lane highway and flanked by august statuary, it ascends through the boundless cosmos to carry its passengers to the doorstep of the great beyond. And at the foot of this fateful stairway is the film’s hero, a Royal Air Force pilot (David Niven) who has emerged intact from a fiery plane crash and is fighting for his survival with an appeal to the afterlife’s highest court.

In the above clip, taken from a supplemental documentary on our brand-new release of A Matter of Life and Death, special-effects artist and film historian Craig Barron takes an up-close look at the stepwise process that went into bringing the celestial escalator to the screen. Renowned production designer (and frequent Archers collaborator) Alfred Junge devised the concept for visualizing the conveyance, which called for the building of two flights of stairs: a twenty-foot-wide, 106-step motorized version, as well as a longer-seeming, statue-lined miniature model. These separate parts were then composited on set—shot simultaneously, at different distances from the camera, using what’s known as the “mixed-scale” or “hanging-miniature” technique—in order to give the impression of a single, horizon-spanning structure. “You just look at that and you go . . . ‘What a great execution of an idea,’” Barron marvels.