The Staircase review – still the godfather of the true crime documentary

Netflix’s doc about the death of Kathleen Peterson and her novelist husband Michael’s court case remains a sensational, game-changing series

In December 2001, Kathleen Peterson, who was married to the 58-year-old novelist Michael Peterson, was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in their mansion in Durham, North Carolina. Peterson said his wife had fallen, but he was tried for murder. Those bare facts are intriguing, but they are just a tiny part of why The Staircase is a crime documentary to rival any of the genre’s biggest hits.

Netflix’s 13-parter comprises eight episodes released in 2004, another two that debuted in 2013 – up to this point, it has all been shown before on BBC4 – and three new instalments, shot last year. Taken in one hit, it is what Netflix justifiably calls a titanic piece of work that confirms the French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade as the godfather of the modern longform documentary. You can see why the producers of Making a Murderer sought advice from De Lestrade when they began editing their show: The Staircase demonstrates how to ride the wave of a sensational true story, zooming in on fine details before pulling back to unleash game-changing revelations at the steady rate of one stunner per episode.

Both series dismantle the American justice system, but The Staircase shows it to be not so much corrupt as inexact. It is soon clear that the absolute truth of whether Peterson did it is unlikely to be revealed: the question is whether his lawyers can get him off. We see every grubby facet of that process, including witness coaching and focus groups used to test arguments.

Perhaps de Lestrade struck lucky with his cast, or perhaps it is a natural consequence of viewing an extraordinary situation close-up, but The Staircase has a startling strain of black farce. Amusing eccentrics are everywhere, from the shifty blood-spatter expert Duane Deaver to the chubby, scruffy bloke operating the defence’s courtroom PowerPoint presentation, whose phone keeps going off during a tense rehearsal on the eve of the trial. Part of the point is that Peterson can afford huge legal fees and has a better experience as a result, but his money only buys him a slightly shabby bunch of guys who are improvising their way through a case that keeps blindsiding them with ludicrous new facts.

Peterson with his defence attorney David Rudolf.
Peterson with his defence attorney David Rudolf. Photograph: Netflix

De Lestrade’s slightly grainy footage paints North Carolina in the early noughties as an eerily ancient, analogue world: a typical Staircase scene features men in boxy suits and big polo shirts wrestling inelegantly with flipchart easels or pinboards in a horribly lit conference room. There is something disturbing about the banality of it all, especially since the gravity of the situation never stops these co-workers sharing a joke. At one point, Peterson’s attorney is seen laughing heartily while walking across the exact spot where Kathleen died.

At the centre of the circus is the endlessly mysterious presence on camera of Peterson himself: for the viewer, as well as debating whether he is a killer, there is the broader question of exactly what sort of charming enigma we are dealing with. His assured loquacity, despite all the secrets and accusations hanging over him, gives the impression that on some level he is enjoying himself. Relatives who defect to the prosecution side all say they never knew him at all.

This is a man who, soon after being charged with murder, addresses a media scrum with this prepared line: “Kathleen was my life. I’ve whispered her name in my heart a thousand times.” He smokes a flamboyant pipe and rarely breaks down in tears. If he is guilty, he is remarkably sanguine about the prospect of being convicted. If he is innocent, he is … remarkably sanguine about the prospect of being convicted. There is a lingering suspicion that nothing he says is fully felt and no opinion he puts forward is sincerely held. (As well as writing novels, Peterson was a newspaper columnist.) Yet the wider issues the series touches on – such as unhelpfully prurient media coverage, the injustice of a system favouring rich defendants, and the way a serious crime ruins whole families, not just those directly involved – are not left for us to discern ourselves. Peterson has the presence of mind to make all those points himself.

Particularly in the newest episodes, which have an inessential, fans-only feel compared to the original eight covering the trial, it is the character of Peterson who takes over. He becomes not just the subject of The Staircase but its star and de facto director: the closing scene of him listening to a record is, thanks to his outrageous song choice, one final queasily entertaining moment in a series that remains unsettlingly opaque.

Contributor

Jack Seale

The GuardianTramp

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