Stairs: a deceptively simple film with a deep and powerful message about finding meaning and purpose in an alienated life

Stefan Schabenbeck, “Stairs / Schody” (1969)

A minimalist claymation 7-minute piece, “Stairs” is one of those teeny-tiny classics about the human search for meaning in life and the often fruitless efforts one puts into finding that meaning only to get no answer or a strange one. A little figure is mooching along the sand when he (we’ll call the figure a “he” for the sake of convenience) sees a raised platform so he steps onto it. He comes across another raised platform so he steps onto that one as well … only see more such raised platforms, all layered over one another in the form of stairs. He eagerly investigates these stairs and discovers himself lost in a maze of stairs leading upwards or downwards in random ways. He determinedly wanders all over the terraced landscape, trying to find the highest point of these stairs – but the only problem is whether his body and spirit will give out before he finds the staircase of all staircases, overseeing its ziggurat dominion, and discovers the whole raison d’etre for this massive tiered sculpture.

Comparable to a much later Polish animation, Tomasz Baginski’s “The Cathedral”, “Stairs” is as barebones in its style and story-telling as can be: the trumpet-dominated music follows the travails of the little character and reflects something of his frustrations in its melodies and plaintive tones. Although the film might seem long for its 7 minutes due to its narrow focus, there is a reason for that apparent obsession: the journey is hard and arduous, the character cannot go back or retrace his steps but must continue his quest, and the whole lanscape around him is seen to be unforgiving. There may very well be a hidden commentary about navigating one’s way through a brutal and uncaring bureaucratic society or trying to find meaning in one’s life when everything around is indifferent. Because the film is so minimalist in its theme and presentation, and lacks a context the viewer can relate to, it becomes timeless: viewers can attribute whatever message that seems most relevant to them to the film and the film communicates that message back so well. Having seen “The Cathedral”, I imputed the message of that film to “Stairs” but had I seen something else with a different message and theme but a similar story, I might have interpreted “Stairs” very differently.

Deceptively simple but very powerful indeed.

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