Staircase: The power of memory - sich alles erinnern

Dorthe Wendt

For a brief moment, the opaqueness of sound and image - maybe the beginning of a goodbye to life - is broken up by the power of memory as a means for holding on to life. Having to let go and say farewell is lighter now.

Addressed by her name, Greta, the protagonist of Staircase manages to hold on to her life, and at the same time, the mentioning of her name starts a stream of memories that insist on cohesion, continuation, passion and redemption. Greta is the same individual, young and old; she experiences the same passion on her way down the stairs, out of her life, as she did on the way up the stairs, entering life with her loved one. The passion of love or sexuality is not reserved for any one age but can be connected to the experience of happiness here and now and through one's memories. What we remember, no one can take away from us.

Staircase is a poetic film, poetry in sound and images. When Greta hears her name being spoken, she wakes up from her almost unconscious state and remembers a situation from when she was a young woman and someone also said her name. Her name, Greta, is the catalyst of her awakened memories. From the opaqueness of sound and images that correspond with the half-unconscious and ill old lady, weak and maybe demented, the director cuts to a point of view of the old woman. This viewpoint is characterised by the blurred light and the subdued sounds from her troubled breathing, her sighs and a person who - with a hand to protect against the white light - tries to contact her by saying her name.

From black the image fades over to the title of the film. A new cut shows us a close-up of the woman who wakes up, puzzled and at the same time, the real sound disappears in favour of another and much more affectionate voice with no other noise around, which gently calls her name, Greta. Cut to a main door with two glass windows in which two young persons appear out of the white light, one in each of the windows.

Cut to subjective camera focusing on round windows penetrated by sharp white light and a banister to the left; a quiet movement downwards is introduced. Cut back to the two youngsters just outside the main door. Her name, Greta, is said again, lovingly, almost in a whisper. They open the door and enter a beautiful staircase; they stop for a moment before beginning to climb the stairs.

The two situations from Greta's life are connected through her remembered associations. The film makes it clear that it is indeed the same woman through a series of motivated cuts between the two situations or ages. The difference in time is underlined by the difference in clothing. The Forties and the present gradually become one and the same. The introduction of the two young people is accompanied by music; piano music that with its lyric tone and growing intensity emphasizes the situation. The relationship between Greta and her loved one is illustrated through close-ups that focus on their bodies and their looking at each other, often framed by the banister; the world right now is these two people, their passion and the growing intensity that is awaiting its climax.

From now on the cuts underline the parallel figure. It is Greta on her way down on the stretcher and the two young people on their way up. The old Greta, who reaches out for the banister, the hands of the two that almost caress the banister while climbing; the happy and satisfied face of the old Greta - a face that just before was marked by pain and anxiety and now reflects her tranquillity. She recalls the episode when she was young and was climbing the same stairs with her lover and it feels real to her, so real that the two parallel situations merge, however, in different directions.

It is obvious that the two situations are not in balance; the young ones are able to move freely while the old Greta depends on others who do not have insight into her inner vision and the richness of the memories that have been set free. Greta's hand caressing the banister and the symbolic holding on to life is therefore, logically enough, abruptly interrupted, when the ambulance man prudently lifts her hand from the banister and puts it back in her lap with a kind squeeze. For a moment she is pulled away from her memories but she manages to get back into them almost immediately, because of the intensity and passion of the two youngsters, also marked by the fading of the music in favour of the sound from the two lovers' increasingly hectic steps upwards and the steady steps downwards of the ambulance men carrying Greta.

There is a first climax in sensuality when the two reach a landing and stop for a moment while holding on to a carving on the banister. Until this point this cut has been moving downwards with Greta until reaching the same landing and it is clear from her face that this special carving provokes happy memories. The passionate embrace of the two young lovers is interrupted when a door slams and they hear footsteps coming down towards them from a floor above. Quite obviously they are not supposed to be seen together - the man is not Greta's husband - and Greta pulls the increasingly excited young man into a niche where they are hidden from the woman coming down the stairs. He cannot, however, stop caressing her, and Greta's sighs and happy moaning almost give them away; the neighbour stops and looks around but turns away again and continues downstairs without embarrassing them.

Motivated cuts from the old to the young Greta dominate the film. The old Greta affectionately caresses the carving of the banister at the same time as the young Greta caresses the head and neck of her lover, and the old Greta lets her hand slide gently down the banister while the young ones more and more passionately kiss and caress one another on their way upstairs. It is at this point that Greta's associations are interrupted by the ambulance man who takes her hand off the banister. Greta, who is pulled away from the blissful memories, reacts unhappily and sighs deeply. The ambulance men take this as a critical sign and place an oxygen mask on her face. The sigh of disappointment of the old Greta merges with the passionate moaning of the young Greta. In the movement downwards we see - for a very short moment - another person coming up the stairs, a parallel to the disturbing appearance of the neighbour, but although this person is listed in the credits as "neighbour 2", I do not think that her presence in just a few frames has any significance other than creating an unnecessary parallel. This is actually the only episode in the film where the strong and consistent spiral structure is compromised, probably because of an attempt to be consistent also in the balance of the parallel situations. While the appearance of the neighbour has a significance, telling us about the hidden character of Greta's love affair, the appearance of "neighbour 2" does not at all contribute to the film. It is more of a disturbance.

When the disturbing neighbour is gone, the music begins again and the youngsters give in completely to their passion whilst trying to climb the stairs to get to the apartment as quickly as possible. The music amplifies the hectic and intense atmosphere. At the same time as the two youngsters passionately begin to make love when in the apartment, the old Greta has reached the hall, and before being lifted out through the door, she turns her head, looks up the stairs and smiles when the sounds of the couple making love are blended with the climax of the music. At the very climax, shot from above, the director pans away from the two lovers and focuses on a close-up of Greta's face, still looking upwards yet without the satisfied smile seen in the earlier cut, but hopefully resting and more serene than when we first met her on the fifth floor, thanks to the releasing powers of her positive memories. Probably also with the recognition, and the regret, that this was the last time for her to caress the banister. The downwards movement has come to an end, the main door is opened by the ambulance men instead of Greta, and where the young woman stepped in through the door full of light and passion, the old one is carried out in the same sharp white light that the young Greta and her lover had appeared in near the start of the film.

The magic of the film comes from letting the spiral movement encompass both the composition and the theme. The upward movement and the downward movement are like a sea-shell in which the two directions are intimately connected; they are actually one. The spiral's way up is the same as its way down, the one leads to the other. The concrete moving up the staircase for the young Greta and the downward movement for the old Greta, are also symbolic movements, into life and out of life. Two moments of her life are brought together by the generosity and the power of her memories. The fact that these memories are triggered by the mentioning of her name only underlines the spiral figure as the dominant artifice of Staircase: life and death, the architecture of the staircase, the anatomy of the ear (connected to her hearing her name, the trigger of the story), the composition of the film - it is all one coherent movement.

The white light is endowed with a clearly symbolic status. It represents life, orgasm and redemption but at the same time represents disappearing and death. The young lovers come out of the light, move upwards until the physical climax where the blackness takes over at the same time as the old Greta moves downwards and disappears in the white light, another release and climax. The little poetic death of the orgasm merges with biological death through the opaque and limitless features of the white light. Love between two human beings and the memories of this sensual love are depicted to us as the foundation for the creation and release of life, even at the very moment of death.

Love, also understood as sexuality and sensuality, is not something exclusively for the young. It keeps its magic in old age. Love is the reason why Greta can meet her death with a gentle smile and her sighing is not one of pain but of pleasure and happiness. Of course, it is misunderstood by the well-meaning ambulance men who do not expect anything but sufferubg and complaints from such an old woman. It is the same prejudice that makes them lift away her hand from the banister. They may be thinking that it is too difficult for her to leave her home but in the clear reality of her memories, Greta is re-experiencing the sensuality of the beautifully carved and polished wood of the banister.

Staircase is an excellent example of film as poetry in contrast to epic film. The narrative of Staircase only plays a role as the carrier of the poetic symbols, the staircase, the banister, the white light. While the real-time movement is the one downwards, the merging of this movement with the revived past movement upwards is the real key to Staircase. This merger takes place through Greta's memories and the important messages of the film are the spiral movement's capacity to reconcile Greta with the movement away from life and the demonstration of the richness of the inner life of an old individual, even at the point when she is no longer in command of herself.

Seeing this short film made me remember a Norwegian short film with the same theme - Come, directed by Marianne Olsen Ulrichsen - another example of a warm, poetic and precise little film that establishes the connection between the actual erotic experiences of youth with the old individual's passion revitalized through the power of memory.

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