The Staircase (2004), one of the most influential documentaries of the past 20 years, is on Netflix. And that matters because of the new HBO drama series starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette, also called The Staircase (2022). And if you watch the new show, you should check out the old one — The Staircase (2004) is essential docu-viewing, like The Thin Blue Line or Murder on a Sunday Morning.
Speaking of Murder on a Sunday Morning, The Staircase was made by the same filmmaker, Oscar winner Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. De Lestrade is a master of the procedural details, and a renowned storyteller. The Staircase unfolds like a classic mystery, revealing surprise after surprise in the telling of Kathleen Atwater's brutal 2001 death.
Atwater, a Nortel business executive, died in a pool of her own blood at the bottom of a staircase in the Durham, North Carolina home she shared with her husband, novelist Michael Peterson. As the film shows, it was Peterson who discovered the body, called 911, and was eventually charged with her murder in December 2001.
The Staircase originally debuted back in 2005 in eight hour-long segments. Critically acclaimed, the documentary focuses on Peterson in the aftermath of Kathleen's death as he withstands the trial of his life. De Lestrade remains incredibly objective, allowing the characters — Peterson, his lawyer David Rudolf, private investigator Ron Guerette, Peterson's children — to inhabit the film and speak for themselves. As they learn new details, so do we, and the outcome is impossible to predict.
De Lestrade added two more chapters to his film in 2013. The Staircase II: The Last Chance updated the story and caught up with all the major players. In 2018, De Lestrade updated the film yet again with three more hours and sold it to Netflix for distribution. The full 13-hour documentary is available to watch now.
Why is The Staircase so influential? It combines the tireless efforts of a filmmaker like Frederick Wiseman, who collects hundreds of hours of footage, with the procedural sensibilities of Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line). Court cases had never been examined in such thorough detail before. De Lestrade originally planned on making a two-hour movie, but, as he collected his footage, he knew he had something much bigger.
Since 2005, we've seen a number of other filmmakers replicate De Lestrade's format. Two hours is no longer enough time to tell the whole story. By including everything, he changed the game. Making a Murderer, The Last Dance, and The Vow are more recent examples of how to do it right.
The Staircase defies comparisons with other films because of its format. It's more like a novel, full of wayward details that color the story, but containing a genuine sense of forward momentum as Peterson's trial gets underway. You can't wait to hear the verdict.
The unpredictability of the film is another reason to see it. If you've never heard of Michael Peterson before... good. The less you know the better because it's all in the film. Peterson, an ex-marine and journalist who also wrote a number of books, is unwavering in his innocence. Despite a grisly murder scene straight out of a horror film, Peterson maintains Kathleen stumbled and fell on the stairs after a night of cocktails. It's his word against nobody's so everyone is skeptical, and that makes for a riveting viewing experience.