The lift is the star
Hardly any blockbuster manages without a scene in a lift – in some films, it is even the star.
Lifts make an appearance in many film productions: a query in the Internet Movie Data Base with this keyword products 1,615 hits. The "Blow up" web magazine of the television channel Arte even devoted a special edition to the intimate relationship between films and lifts.
The breadth of the film clips shown range from François Truffaut’s nouvelle vague classic "The soft skin", cult films like "Blues Brothers" and action spectacles like "Die Hard with a Vengeance" to pearls of independent films like "Lost in Translation". Recent blockbusters, such as the Marvel film "Black Panther" or the "Star Wars" saga do not manage without lifts either.
Cramped space, seclusion and forced intimacy
What makes them so fascinating for films? When the lift’s doors open like theatre or cinema curtains, they grant an insight into life’s highs and lows – compressed into a very narrow space. Fights, love scenes, confessions and murders take place here.
The cramped space, seclusion and forced intimacy are an invitation to crossing boundaries. Here, Jack Lemmon drools over lift operator Shirley McLane in Billy Wilder’s "The Apartment", Joseph Gordon-Levitt succumbs to Zooey Deschanel in the comedy "500 Days of Summer".
Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan engage in one of the most poetic screen kisses in "Drive" while Michael Douglas and Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction" or Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan in "Fifty Shades of Grey" give free rein to their passion and enjoy the breaking of taboos.
Rise or fall in society
The lift can also symbolise a rise or fall in society as in the comedy "The Secret of My Success" with Michael J Fox. While aspiring to be a young manager, Brantley Foster only gets a job in his uncle’s company as a messenger boy.
He soon notices the mismanagement of the company and slips into the role of the fictitious manager Carlton Whitfield. A name sign on an empty office door, a secretary and the matching outfit suffice for the swindle. He selects the lift, the only place where he can be undisturbed in the building, for his transformation from messenger boy to successful businessman.
Thus, the lift is what makes his career possible in the first place. Shielded by lift cars, which are not yet under camera surveillance, an inconspicuous reporter can be transformed into a superhero ("Superman") or women into men and vice-versa (Jack Lemmon und Tony Curtis in "Some Like It Hot").
In addition, lifts wake numerous human anxieties, from the fear of cramped, secluded spaces and fear of falling to the dislike of close contact with other people. Action directors like to play with the tingle of such fears, expelling their protagonists from the safety of the car, where these then have to clamber up to the heights or down to the depths using cables, before the lift car explodes or crashes into the shaft pit.
To be seen equally in "Speed" and the "Die Hard"-series. As early as 1984, the German director Carl Schenkel cooked up a respectable action hit from these ingredients in "Abwärts ["Downwards"]." It begins with one of the most laboured film motifs in this connection: a stuck lift. The most famous example of this is Louis Malle’s 1958 film noir classic "Elevator to the Gallows".
Here the lift simultaneously becomes a prison and his downfall for the protagonist Julien Tavernier: while he is stuck after committing the perfect murder, someone else commits a crime with his weapon, which he then has to pay for at the end. Here the lift, actually a symbol of advanced technology, with whose help people overcome gravity, embodies the incalculable, which people cannot control.
Unforgettable film moments
The irrational and technology collide even more starkly in horror films involving lifts. In "The Shining", director Stanley Kubrick transforms the lift into a messenger of death by having blood cascade out of it. In "Devil", the devil himself is behind one of the people trapped in lift - and a bloody guessing game begins.
The Dutch filmmaker Dick Maas finally gives the lift its due and makes it into the main character. In 1983, his horror film "De Lift" and the Hollywood remake "Down" of 2001, the mode of transport acquires a life of its own and commits a series of grisly crimes. It is questionable whether a lift will ever make it as the shining hero in a film.
But there is no doubt that it will in future also guarantee unforgettable film moments, because its changeable interior provides the ideal stage for every kind of scene a filmmaker can imagine.