Staircase: Reflections on the senses of remembrance

Edvin Vestergaard Kau

Greta, an old woman, is carried down the stairs on a stretcher by two ambulance-men. Apparently she is so weak or ill that she cannot remain in her apartment. The viewer must presume that somebody has decided to have her brought to the hospital. While being carried down the stairs, she is given an oxygen mask. Maybe Greta herself has called for assistance. Perhaps she is even dying.

The surroundings in the staircase evoke her memories of an episode, when she as a young woman together with her lover came to the house and hastily covered the distance up the stairs in order to make love as soon as they came inside the door to her apartment. In only a little more than four minutes and in a simple manner (on the brink of the banal), Staircase Fem trappor) tells this minimalist story.

If you describe the story of the film in this way, there is not very much to discuss or write about; and yet, if we concentrate on some of the special qualities in the practice of this film, there is certainly more to it than that. What is at stake, and what strikes me as interesting in this perspective, is not just the fact that Staircase brings together the present and the past, but especially the mechanisms that enable it to do so in elegant ways. This we can parallel with the representation or portrayal of acts of remembrance in other films as well, and I shall discuss these practices and make comparisons with similar scenes, because Staircase and its ways of linking the past with the present actually can make you think of the same kind of "time-space-magic" in other films; although you can find both differences and similarities in this respect, too. What both Staircase and other examples show is that in different ways, the act of remembrance is connected with the senses: the sense of touch, of hearing, and of sight (and of course shown more indirectly in the audio-visual medium of film than the other three: the sense of smell and of taste). In a way, we may see Staircase as a short exploration of this; it literally tries to make sense of remembrance.

Greta looking back
The first shot shows a very old woman slowly opening her eyes, and we hear the ambulance-man gently say: "Greta!" (fig. 1-2). During the next shot (fig. 3), which is a subjective point-of-view shot from her position, a small flashlight is pointed at her eyes to check if she is reasonably all right. So what we see and hear is immediately defined as heard and seen through Greta's ears and eyes. Then follows the title and another shot of Greta, this time lifting her head with an attentive, curious as well as somewhat surprised expression (fig. 4), followed by a cut to the double entrance door of the building. Young Greta and her lover appear in the two windowpanes (fig. 5), and a cut brings us back to her p.o.v. of the staircase, the forward camera movement indicating that her journey down the stairs has begun (fig. 6). Obviously she remembers something, and the next second her name is repeated, this time by another man's whispering voice simultaneously with another cut to the doorway, the two young lovers looking at each other (fig. 7). The sound of her name, the acoustics, and the sight of the space evoke her memory. And the third shot of the couple in the doorway at the bottom of the stairs shows them entering and starting towards her flat at the top.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

Fig. 6

Fig. 7

Hearing and Seeing, Now and Then
The sense of hearing and the sense of sight are shown to lead directly down Remembrance Lane and to introduce the possibility of melting past and present into one. Another way to make use of this and of cinema's capacity to utilize this "sensory language" or "aesthetics of the senses" to articulate meaning, can be observed in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

During the first part of the film, the Robert De Niro character Noodles is forced by mafia rivals to leave New York. At the station he buys a bus ticket to "Anywhere… First bus. ["Buffalo?"] … (Nodding) One way". Surrounded by the station building, busy travelers, and the noise of trains, etc., he pauses to contemplate his leaving the city, in front of the glass door to the platforms and the wall with the giant mural advertisement for Coney Island. Leone cuts to a close up of the glass squares in the door, and almost immediately Morricone's musical theme is replaced by The Beatles' "Yesterday". Then, the 35 year older Noodles comes into sight in the glass door; for a moment he again pauses, adjusts his coat and scarf - and turns away from the door. We have been looking at a mirror image. As the camera pulls back, and Noodles follows it from the door, it is disclosed that he is already on the same side of the door as he was 35 years earlier. He is back. The Coney Island wall has turned into the New York skyline with a red Big Apple around the door and the sixties' slogan "Love" instead of "Visit Coney Island". Not only has Leone intertwined the present and the past in this stylistic arabesque of editing, camera work, and sound, he has also done it within the same room. On top of the playful use of "Yesterday", after letting the audience hear just this word and "Suddenly…." he leaves out the lyrics, so that the viewers themselves may continue in their minds: 1. "…All my troubles seemed so far away… and 2. "… I'm not half the man I used to be..."

Once more, pure sight (figures, colours, pictures) and pure sound (noise, music, voices), as they are combined through montage, let the cinematic expression melt different ages together. A cut on the door is enough to "beam" the viewer back and forth across decades or centuries. Leone does a similar trick a little later when Noodles, directly from his old age, "sees" his first "dream girl" as a teenager through the same peephole as he did as a boy.

The sense of touch
On the way down the stairs, Greta reaches out for the banisters with her hand, in vain. But at the same time as young Greta and her lover are shown coming upwards and generally moving to the right on the screen, old Greta is "approaching" them, generally to the left.

Fig. 8

Fig. 9

A little later, close-ups show both old Greta's hand gliding down the banister and the lovers' moving up its smooth curve (fig. 10 and 11). Like young Greta, old Greta wears two golden rings. (That is, further back than the past we are shown in the film, there is still another story of love and loss.) Coming downwards she turns her head and follows the passing banister with her eyes (fig. 12); she smiles, and while shots of the young lovers show their infatuation and caresses, perhaps the most beautiful shot of the film (fig. 11) shows the old lady's hand sliding down the banister, touching it with the back of her hand.

Fig. 10

Fig. 11

The important sense of touch is not only to be found with the two young people and their desire, their hands, bodies, caresses. These images are, to say the least, paralleled by the shots showing old Greta touching the banister and caressing the railing posts at the landings.

Fig. 12

Fig. 13

Fig. 14

Fig. 15

Fig. 16

Fig. 17

Fig. 18

The sense of cinema
What becomes clear is that Staircase is a fine example of the potential of cinema (in spite of existing at the mercy of chronological time and dividable space) to create a simultaneity that suspends the division of time into present and past and of space into there and here (fig. 19-20).

Fig. 19

Fig. 20

In the media-created worlds of the moving image it is possible to let the audience sense and experience immediate combinations, or better, unity across time and space. (Of course, this is most obvious in fiction, but the creation of documentaries often makes use of the same possibilities). [1]

In Staircase Greta is able to see and hear across time and space; she can even touch the past. The remembrance of a lifetime is in her hands, ears, eyes - it's in her body. And we, the viewers, can see and hear it, and sense the meaning of the film.

Some of the questions and reflections that arise from the present analysis of these aspects of Staircase and similar examples, might be stated as follows: Does a staircase lead upwards or downwards? Does a gaze travel from the seeing eye to the seen or the other way around? Is what we hear a result of the sound (source) or the sense of hearing? Is my touch part of/in my hand and body or the thing and body I reach out to?

Does our remembrance work from the present to the past or from past to present? How is it possible to show this relationship in film and in what way may cinema bring these seemingly opposite poles together on the screen as well as in the senses of the viewers? As mentioned, Greta - and Hanna Andersson's very sensual film about her - may be said to sense, or even touch, the past; she has the past in her hand.

1 A students' short film production from December 2005 at the Department of Information and Media Studies, University of Aarhus, is a fine example of this practice. In Gensyn ("Reunion") touch and sight play the same role as that analysed here in Staircase; and the main character, an old widow, is shown to "see" and "touch" her long dead husband. (Production group: Andreas B. Nielsen, Trine Sørensen, Jakob H. Thomsen, Anne Thostup, Jane H. Ulsøe, Lotte Vestergaard). - In his TV series The Kingdom (1994) Lars Trier achieves a similar goal by having two or three layers of shots superimposed on each other with not only visual contact between characters over vast stretches of time, but even having them talk to each other.

to the top of the page