I can vividly remember the first time I binge-watched a TV show: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s eight-hour crime documentary The Staircase, a rare splurge on a DVD boxed set, bought because it reminded me of the great southern gothic murder trials of my childhood, like the Haysom murder trial recently profiled in The New Yorker. I remember it so well because, shortly after starting it, my then-girlfriend and I got into one of the biggest fights of our then-new relationship. I don’t remember what it was about. I do remember that we went on watching it almost straight through, anyway, and we’ve been pestering Serial and Making a Murderer fans about it ever since. (Reader, I married her.)
We weren’t alone in loving it. Created by the French filmmaker for Canal+ in 2004, The Staircase tells the story of Michael Peterson, a crime novelist who is arrested for the murder of his wife, Kathleen, a telecom executive, after she is found dead at the bottom of a staircase in their Durham, North Carolina, mansion, from an assault or a fall. Told in eight 45-minute segments that blend shocking twists with the fascinating tedium of the courtroom, it directly inspired Serial and paved the way for Making a Murderer: a crime documentary that uses the length provided by the serial format to immerse the viewer in the socioeconomic worlds of the accused and the extraordinarily complex machinery that is a high-profile criminal trial.
The Staircase was just re-aired by Sundance (and is available to stream on its website through March 16) to ride the Making a Murderer wave, but it’s no cynical cash-in. It still holds up, and now makes a compelling companion piece to Netflix’s hit series in its remarkable similarities and considerable differences. On the most basic level, it’s like a proof of concept for the documentary serials that follow. The O.J. trial and Court TV proved that American audiences could consume the marginalia of marquee trials in bulk quantities; films like Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, Frederick Wiseman’s Domestic Violence (like Making a Murderer’s Laura Ricciardi, Wiseman studied law), and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinovsky’s Brother’s Keeper could make documentary art from them. The Staircase tries to combine the approaches, and though its harsh cinematography makes Making a Murderer look like the work of Iñárritu, it, too, gains richness through an accretion of detail.
As with Making a Murderer, it gets enough material for a long day’s journey into nightmare by embedding with the defense — a top legal team, their client, and the client’s family. In this case, Michael Peterson and his family could not be more different than the subjects of MAM: Where Steven Avery is a borderline learning-disabled laborer living in a trailer on his family’s scrap yard in rural Wisconsin, Peterson is a hyperarticulate, learned writer who showily smokes a pipe and quotes Shakespeare. Avery’s marginal, blue-collar family is warily monosyllabic when talking to the filmmakers and press; Peterson’s lawyer brother and bright college-age kids can meet his (very expensive) attorney on the same intellectual terms.
Peterson’s money opens doors. After his arrest, he makes his bail immediately despite it being just shy of a million dollars, and continues to spend on a lavish defense that the film follows in comparable detail. With only one trial to cover, The Staircase spends a lot more time than Making a Murderer on how the defense builds its case outside the courtroom, which includes a trip to Germany to investigate a key incident in Peterson’s early life. At one point, his lawyers discuss commissioning a scientifically valid survey — the kind news outlets often do, requiring hundreds or thousands of responses — to address a seemingly tangential aspect of his defense, at a cost of $30,000. The documentary even features one of the matinee idols of true crime: Henry Lee, the forensic scientist made famous by the O.J. Simpson trial, the 1986 woodchopper murder of the flight attendant that inspired Fargo, and the JonBenét Ramsey case. A political consultant once told me that a campaign is thrilling because it’s like a start-up company: You assemble a team of brilliant people with diverse skills, put together a complex collective system on the fly, and then one day it’s just over. Few people get that kind of a legal defense, but it’s all the more interesting for being rare.
Peterson may be on the far end of the socioeconomic spectrum from Steven Avery, but in one critical aspect, he’s not all that different. (And here you are owed a spoiler alert.) Despite his success and wealth — and the film spends plenty of time in his lavish yet homey New South mansion as he drinks wine and cooks attractive food with his attractive family — Peterson is nonetheless marginalized. Over the course of the film, it comes out that Peterson is bisexual, and much of the case turns on the specifics of his sexual orientation. Peterson claims that his wife knew, and that he was devoted to her romantically even as he pursued extramarital sex with men. The prosecution uses his emails with a young male escort (and the military-themed pornography on the Vietnam veteran’s computer) as his motive to kill his wife when his infidelities are, theoretically, discovered.
In fact, the role of Peterson’s opaque sexuality motivated de Lestrade to make The Staircase. His previous documentary, the Oscar-winning Murder on a Sunday Morning, focused on a black teen falsely accused of murder, and he saw The Staircase in the same vein. “It is obvious to me that if the wealthy, famous, white writer Michael Peterson hadn’t been bisexual, the case would never have come to court,” he told TV Week in 2006. “It appeared to me that Michael Peterson’s case could also be a story of exclusion, of segregation, but of another kind.”
“Do you really believe that Kathleen knew that Mr. Peterson was bah-sexual?” Freda Black, one of the prosecuting attorneys, says in her closing statement, in a pointed twang. “That it was okay for her to go to work while he stayed at home and communicated by telephone and email with people who he was planning on having sex with? … I don’t mean to offend anybody, but [the escort] did say they were gonna have anal sex.”
“You saw the rest of the things on the computer,” she continues, moving on to the pornography. “Once again, these things are so filthy, you cain’t even show them on tee-vee. Filth. Pure-T [sic] filth. This isn’t people involved in a relationship. This is just any which-a-way. This is called ’hard-core porn.’”
And then, with all the puckered fury of Dana Carvey’s Church Lady: “That’s not the way soul mates conduct themselves. That is not.”
This was the trial of a man who lived in a wealthy neighborhood in a city dominated by an elite university, Duke, which, along with the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University, form the Research Triangle, one of the best-educated regions of the country. (Michael Peterson graduated from Duke and studied at UNC; Kathleen Peterson was the first woman accepted to the school of engineering at Duke.) But it was also the South in 2003, and Black squeezed out every last bit of her accent in detailing his proclivities.
After we finished binging on The Staircase, we were pretty convinced of Peterson’s guilt, for reasons that would dig up more spoilers than is worth it. But that was a long time ago, and there have been significant developments that further complicate things, as de Lestrade covered in 2012 in a two-episode sequel, The Staircase: Last Chance. According to de Lestrade, he’s not convinced either way. And after a decade of observing the legal system — and bingeing on the murky world of Making a Murderer — I’m less sure than I was then. Not just about determining Michael Peterson’s guilt or innocence, but how any jury determines it in any difficult case. And that’s chilling.
Stream The Staircase on sundance.tv through March 16.