Afterlife fantasies—from Dante’s Divine Comedy to Pixar’s Soul—have always been a unique way to look at society. In this short series, I’ll be looking at the film tradition of afterlife fantasies, and discussing the recurring themes and imagery across a century of cinema. Here at the halfway point of this miniseries, we’ve come through movies that have focused heavily on fate and destiny, but here at last we’ve come to two of the most humanist entries in this subgenre: the effervescent pair of Heaven Can Wait and A Matter of Life and Death.
In both films, life takes up at least as much screentime as afterlife, and is presented as a paradise of Technicolor, noble friendship, and sweeping romances that turn into lasting love affairs. As in many of the movies in the series, the afterlife seems to be an enormous bureaucracy in which we humans are simply moving parts—but the difference here is that the mortals insist they have the right to challenge authority, and win. Another fun connection is that these two films, one made by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch and the other by the equally-legendary Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, stress the idea that while occasionally one simply must pick a fight with The Universe, that’s no excuse for allowing one’s impeccable manner to slip.
Can love conquer all? Or are there certain cosmic laws that everyone must submit to?
Coulda Had A Lubitsch: Heaven Can Wait (1943)
Ernst Lubitsch! One of the greatest directors in film history, not because of flashy camerawork or innovative story structure, but because he prized wit, charm, and most important, humanism, above all else. You can watch any Lubitsch movie now and it could’ve been made yesterday. He started out in the theater in Germany, moved into film in the 1910s, and by the ’20s was acclaimed enough as a director to make the jump to Hollywood, where he made all-time classic like Design for Living, Trouble in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner, Ninotchka, and To Be or Not To Be. These last are especially interesting to look at here. In Ninotchka, Lubitsch takes the story of a dedicated Russian communist and shows her being seduced by the beauty and fun of Paris, and makes it clear that Paris is swell, but neither Ninotchka nor any of her Russian friends are evil, and also the ideals of communism are good, before they get mucked up by human frailty. And in To Be or Not To Be, he takes on Nazi Germany, but through a story of a troupe of theater actors in Warsaw who are trying to stage a satire of the Gestapo. In both cases the films could have been dour commentaries on society, but instead he focuses on ground-level characters who are potentially crushed by historic regimes, but respond with sarcasm and mental dexterity. This effervescence was immortalized as “the Lubitsch Touch” by his fellow filmmakers.
In Heaven Can Wait, he applies this Touch to the biggest regime possible: death. While he allows that Death comes to everyone, and that the afterlife has a certain stratification, that’s no reason for anyone to lose their sense of humor, or forget how fabulous a well-lived life can be. In Lubitsch’s world, the Devil is accommodating, Heaven is reasonable, and romantic love can conquer all.
Not for Ernst Lubitsch the flashy theatrical afterlife of some of the others on this list! When Henry Cleve presents himself to the Devil, er, excuse me, His Excellency, he does so by walking slowly down a short flight of grey steps, neatly bisected by a shadow into darker and lighter grey. Hell’s waiting room is a… OK, hang on. I feel I have to make my stance clear: actual Hell in the film seems rather unpleasant. But the waiting room? Gorgeous. A cavernous space done in rich, bold Technicolor red, the whole room lined in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, themselves filled with enormous hardcover books—presumably the records of the souls who have passed through here.
We quickly learn that Henry isn’t officially damned, and no one told him to report to Hell—he just assumed that after his life of debauchery he wouldn’t be welcomed into The Other Place. We don’t learn how he knew where to go, or whether there was any sort of transport involved, we meet him on that staircase, and then we learn about his character and life on Earth via the flashbacks that make up the bulk of the movie.
As Henry speaks with His Excellency, they’re interrupted by an old neighbor of Henry’s, a society dame who, unlike our hero, seems to have behaved badly enough to get sent straight Down. Just as she’s about to flash her legs at Henry, the Devil, rolling his eyes, springs a trapdoor and down she goes, screaming.
It’s a jarring moment—the one time the film acknowledges that Henry is essentially delivering himself up for torture. Because that’s precisely what’s happening. No one sent him here. He just assumed that he wouldn’t cut it Above, and, not wanting to put any angelic personages in the awkward position of having to turn him away at the door, headed south. This is the most profoundly Lubistchy thing in the whole movie. Obviously the right sort of person would rather consign himself to eternal torment rather than commit a social faux pas, and naturally the witty, sophisticated Excellency will take some time out of eternity to hear Henry’s tales of Gay ‘90s Ribaldry. Aside from the trapdoor moment, the worst torment His Excellency cops to is that Henry won’t get to hear Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven if he heads Below.
It’s Lubitsch’s way of setting out parameters of his world; elements of bitterness and unpleasantness have no place here, and even the Gates of Hell are charming and palatial. The most horrifying thought in the film is the prospect of descending into an eternal afterlife without the right music.
When Henry finishes the story of his life and asks to be sent to Hell, His Excellency replies, “I hope you will not consider me inhospitable if I say, ‘Sorry, Mr. Van Cleve, but we don’t cater to your class of people here. Please make your reservation somewhere else.’” When Henry worries that “Above” might not let him register, either (“The doorman might not let me in!”) His Excellency reassures him: “Sometimes they have a small room vacant in the Annex. Not exactly on the sunny side, not so very comfortable. The bed might be hard, and you might have to wait a few hundred years until the move you into the main building… well, it doesn’t hurt to try!” He goes on to say that since Henry will have several good references, including his wife, he has a very good chance.
I watched a lot of movies for this miniseries, but this was the only one that took the bold step of giving us a compassionate Devil. Like Outward Bound, it implies that there are ways to work your way up in the afterlife, without ever quite using the word Purgatory, and without ever explaining what “work” would mean in this context. But after those moments of vagueness, we get a beautifully mundane mode of afterlife travel: a sleek deco elevator.
Even here in this droll, lighthearted film, the basic message is that the individual should fight (politely, of course) to be treated well by the mysterious forces running the Universe. So Henry Van Cleve wasn’t perfect—who is?
Lost in a Cloud: A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
I’ve written about this film before, at length, and I’m sure I’ll find a reason to write about it again. It might be my favorite film, give or take a Tati or a LOTR Extended Edition. It was made at by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger at the behest of the British government, and is one of the few good forms of propaganda I’ve ever heard of. Basically, the Yanks had been stationed in Britain for a very long time, a lot of British people were sick of hosting them, but the governments of both countries needed everyone to get along for a while as WWII finally ended. Powell and Pressburger’s solution? A love story between a British Airman and an American WAC. But not just a basic love story, no—this was a profoundly humanistic, anti-war story that managed to critique the imperial tendencies of both countries, tell a story that can be read as a fantasy or as a purely scientific tale, depending on your preference, and create a truly unique view of the afterlife all in one go.
It opens as a camera pans through across a starscape, and a signified narrator says, “This… is the Universe. Big, isn’t it?” The narrator goes on for all the world like a planetarium presentation, before coming to a familiar planet, and saying, “There’s our Earth. Part of the pattern.” The narrator tells us that it’s May 2, 1945, we hear the sound of bombs and planes, and the camera dives down into the fog rolling in over England.
Squadron Leader Peter Carter’s plane is going down, and he’s talking to June, a radio dispatcher. He gazes out his aircraft’s window at a wall of flames, presumably from his engine. His radio operator, Bob Trubshawe, is dead at his feet. Peter, a poet in civilian life, turns to verse as he faces his death, quoting Sir Walter Raleigh and Andrew Marvell. He tells June, “I’m bailing out, but there’s a catch—I’ve got no parachute.” He gives her a message for his mother and sisters, and finally begins musing on death. He promises to be a ghost and come see her before saying probably the most British thing that’s ever been said, by anyone: “Can’t be helped about the parachute.” I mean.
Then he goes on: “I’ll have my wings soon anyway. Big white ones! I hope they haven’t gone all modern—I’d hate to have a prop instead of wings.” He asks what she thinks the next world’s like, but goes on to his own philosophical musings before she can reply. He cites his religion as Church of England, but namechecks Plato, Aristotle, and Jesus equally, and while as in Outward Bound and Between Two Worlds there’s a light Protestantism implied, no particular religion is represented in the later scenes set in The Other World. Powell and Pressburger’s vision of an afterlife, if we want to assume it is an afterlife, is absolutely inclusive.
As he jumps, the words “Props or wings?” murmur in the background, and we cut to a black and white world. We see shrink-wrapped wings coming down a factory line. It is, at once, a hilarious image of mechanization, a fun nod to Peter’s fears about modernity, and a horrifying reminder of how many people are dying below. (Have I mentioned that I love every frame of this movie?) There’s Peter’s fellow crewman Bob Trubshawe sitting on a bench and watching the door. He watches people come in, seemingly up an escalator, including a French airman and a British, the French gentleman describing how he died, and the British seemingly understanding him perfectly. Language is no barrier here, you see. A boy comes up playing a harmonica, reminiscent of Joe Pendleton and his lucky sax, and another boy, none other than baby Richard Attenborough, comes in looking baffled.
An American crew comes in, tripping over each other in their hurry to get to the Coke machine that’s just inside the landing. The Captain goes to the reception desk and, typical, barks out that he’d like “a room with a bath—officer’s quarters of course.” But the receptionist replies, “We’re all the same, here,” prompting one of the captain’s men to shoulder him aside—gently—and say, “Excuse me, brother.”
Trubshawe insists that there must have been a mistake when Peter doesn’t turn up, and when the receptionist, who is credited only as “Angel”, insists that “mistakes don’t happen here” Trubshawe, who has clearly decided that death cannot stop him from flirting, says, “regulations were made to be broken.” She tells him that “There hasn’t been a mistake here for a thousand years”, but when there is “all the alarm bells start ringing in the Record Office. And that’s only the living records. Everyone on Earth has a file: Russian, Chinese, Black, or white, rich, or poor, Republican, or Democrat.” She leads Trubshawe over to the vast network of portals that peer into the Record Office.
Bob: “If anyone had told me clerks were working up here just like on earth.”
Angel: “Everyone here is allowed to start how they like.”
Baby Richard Attenborough: “It’s Heaven, isn’t it?”
[They both look up, startled.]
Angel: “You see? there are millions of people on earth who would think it Heaven to be a clerk.”
And with that we see the Americans passing through the doorway. BUT. As has become customary in these film, the camera is planted firmly behind the doorway, facing out. We see the airmen’s reactions to seeing whatever’s through the door, but we don’t see it. It’s basically like that classic Spielberg “AWE” shot, but Powell doesn’t turn the camera to show us the dinosaur of the inside of the UFO or whatever. “Home was nothin’ like this!” one of the airmen squawks, as his fellow murmurs, “Mine was…”
And then, as Bob signs in, those alarms do start blaring. The count is off! The clock stops, and there’s Peter waking up on the beach, alive and in glorious Technicolor, just in time to meet June as she cycles home from her shift. But how has he survived?
From here we cut back and forth between the glowing Technicolor world that Peter is alive in, and the crisp black and white of The Other World. Only Young Master Attenborough ever calls it Heaven, and, in fact, the film goes to great lengths to remind us that it might only be unspooling in Peter’s fevered brain, as it becomes increasingly clear that he has a life-threatening medical condition that only experimental neurosurgery can fix.
Breaking into the medical drama and the love story with June is Conductor 71. Conductor 71 is the messenger who was meant to guide Peter to The Other World, but lost him in “the accursed English fog.” 71 is called up before the Chief Recorder, who shows them all that the records are off And so Peter isn’t just a dead person, he’s also messing up the Records Office, and throwing off the perfect clockwork of the Universe. But Peter, much to the dismay of his Conductor, insists on having a trial for his life:
Peter: “If it’s a respectable place there must be a law of appeal!”
71: “Be reasonable! Appeal to whom???”
Peter: That’s for you to find out.”
71: “It has never been done!”
Peter: “Is that any reason that it can’t be done now?”
Is Peter echoing Trubshawe (“Regulations were made to be broken!”) or was Trubshawe’s objection a product of his own imagination as he lay on the beach? Either way, the individual is not giving into death or fate or his foppish Conductor without a fight.
71 is a beautiful creation. Not an implacable, but generally kind, agent of death like Mr. Jordan, nor a stuffy comic relief figure, Marius Goring plays 71 as a conflicted, complex person. He can be very funny, as when he accused Peter of being “determined to get me in…the salad!” He clearly misses the hell out of Earth, since, as he says “One is starved for Technicolor…up There.” He completely gets why Peter wants to stay with June, and at time. seems to be on his side. Sometimes he tries to trick Peter into joining him in The Other World by offering to play chess with him every day, at others he gazes at Peter with a longing that hovers between sensual and malevolent.
And this tug of war between Peter, his love for June, and science and The Other World culminates in an image that became instantly iconic, and has popped up in other afterlife movies ever since: The Stairway to Heaven.
One of the fun throughlines I’ve found in these movies is seeing how they update afterlife travel. Nothing as simple as wings, no we get ocean liners, elevators and simple flights of stairs, planes and trams. But of all of them, A Matter of Life and Death is the one that gave us the most iconic afterlife travel: a massive escalator, created by production designer Alfred Junge, that acts as a bridge between worlds. There are several versions of the massive escalator, including a one-to-one, fully operational one named Ethel, and miniature version, lined with statues, that was used for wide shots and forced perspectives. The gorgeous humans over at the Criterion Channel have a brief video about the escalator if you want to see.
The escalator has been referenced in the Tom & Jerry cartoon “Heavenly Puss”, a couple of Simpsons episodes, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, a cat-reincarnation movie called The Three Lives of Thomasina, and Mike Nichols’ miniseries version of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. (And we’ll see it again, of course, in Pixar’s Soul.) In particular, Angels in America reminded me that the escalators and elevators can be read as literal-minded updates on Jacob’s ladder, a scene from the Book of Genesis which had been interpreted and re-interpreted for centuries across Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And there’s precedent! William Blake’s version of the “ladder” takes the form of a spiral staircase:
A Matter of Life and Death is the most wholesome version of the “I’m too special for Death” thread that I’ve tracked through this miniseries. Where Heaven Can Wait stands out precisely because Henry van Cleve doesn’t try to fight the system—well-mannered to the end, and past it, sends himself to Hell because he doesn’t want to embarrass anyone by showing up unwanted in Heaven—Peter Carter uses his proper Oxford courtesy to fight for another chance at life. As he points out, he was resigned to his death initially, and would have gone along quietly with no fuss at all if it wasn’t for Conductor 71’s mistake. In his argument, his newfound love with June has made him a different person than the one who was willing to jump from a burning plane without a chute, and that new person should be allowed to renegotiate a new death date and build a life with June. Honestly, I don’t know if this would hold up in a modern, Earthly court, but the movie itself affirms Peter’s stance by having his main antagonist concede the trial, saying, “The rights of the uncommon man must always be respected.”
In Powell and Pressburger’s world, like Lubitsch’s, love can conquer all, an individual can and should fight back against bureaucracy or propriety, even when it seems the whole universe is against them.
This makes me deliriously happy.
But I also caught a new meaning on this rewatch. If we want to watch A Matter of Life and Death as a pure fantasy the ending is very clear: June offers to take Peter’s place in the ledger. If the accountancy is so important to the Prosecuting Attorney and the Judge, she’ll swap in for him, the accounting error will be fixed, and Peter will get to live his life. (Peter only allows this because he’s been frozen, of course.) June steps onto the escalator, it begins carrying her away, but the force of their love for each other is too strong. The stairs stop, and she runs back down the steps into Peter’s arms, and the prosecution admits he’s been beaten. Thanks to this, Peter’s soul is returned to him and he comes through the surgery successfully.
But what if we read the movie as a realistic drama, in which a young airman’s head injury is causing hallucinations?
During his operation Peter is tortured with visions of his trial—he believes it will decide his fate. He still doesn’t know how he survived his jump, and he’s terrified both that he might lose June, and that he’s rushing into the relationship with her. He is, by nature, a person who embraces ideas of spirituality and destiny, and, especially given the amazing kismet of their meeting, probably wants to believe that he and June are meant to be. He is also a person who lost his own father to World War I. He has flown over 67 missions, each one risking his own life. He has watched friends die, he has held their bodies, and he has known for years that he might not make it through the war. And now he’s getting an experimental, possibly life-saving surgery, all because he got the weird stroke of luck to not die when he jumped from his plane, the radio dispatcher he spoke with fell in love with him back, and she happens to know one of the foremost neurosurgeons in England. It’s all a bit much, no?
And so in the depths of his surgery, on the edge of death, his mind gives him a trial whose terms he can meet, before a jury and audience of the thousands of servicemen-and-women who have died in war. It gives him June, offering her life for his, proving to him that she does love him, this isn’t a fling. And, finally, when she trades her life for his, the stairs stop—the Universe itself is telling him they belong together. And when she runs down those steps the audience, all those war dead, the ones who didn’t get as lucky as him—cheer for him and his second chance. In Peter’s mind, all of the creation and all of the dead are telling him he’s allowed to take this second chance and run with it. And so, in 1946, in movie theaters across England and the U.S., all the people who were home from war were being told that they got to live again, now.
Personally I like both readings and bob and weave between them depending on my mood.
Heaven Can Wait resolutely refuses to acknowledge either World War that took place during its decades-long setting. The film came out in 1943, and this must have seemed odd to moviegoers at the time. But my thought is that Lubitsch, ever a believer in the joy to be found in life, chose to deny the horror of war. He wanted his movie to focus on life, and love. He wanted to make a gentle case that love can conquer death, and he wanted to give his audiences two hours of joyous escape. A Matter of Life and Death tackles war head-on, but to the same purpose. Peter’s life of poetry and study is important. His love story with June is important. They’ll outlast the horror of World War II, because the only thing that can make that horror worth it, in the long run, is for people to pick up their lives and loves and art and try to create that world we could have if we’d just work for it.
Here at the halfway point in the miniseries, it’s interesting to note that we’ve had two movies (Here Comes Mr. Jordan and Heaven Can Wait), that were both produced during World War II but utterly ignored it, and two (Between Two Worlds and A Matter of Life and Death), that used the war as their main narrative device. In the fight between the rights of individual and the clicking gears of the Universe, most of the film have come down on the side of the Universe, with only the two films in this entry insisting that the Cosmos should bend itself to human needs. In the second half of the series, we’ll see that belief in an individual’s importance pitted not against a Grand Plan, but more often, as in Matter, against the paperwork-strewn bureaucracy of The Afterlife office culture.
In the next installment, the afterlife gets some modern makeovers in Defending Your Life, What Dreams May Come, and Wristcutters: A Love Story.