Director: Douglas Sirk
Screenplay: Orin Jannings
Based on a Novel by: Erich Maria Remarque
Starring: John Gavin, Liselotte Pulver, Jock Mahoney, Erich Maria Remarque
Producer: Robert Arthur
Running Time: 132 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
After breaking my Douglas Sirk ‘cherry’ so to speak with The Tarnished Angels recently, I jumped straight into the film which directly followed that in his filmography, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, which is also being given the HD treatment by Masters of Cinema. Although I liked the previous film quite a lot, so my fear of Sirk’s brand of melodrama had been diminished, I was still a little hesitant to put this on as on top of being a melodrama, this is a war film, another genre I’m not a huge fan of. Of course there are a number of war films which I greatly admire (Apocalypse Now has long held a place in my all time top ten), but overall the genre is littered with overly worthy and horribly blunt parables which are usually respectable, but often manipulative and tired, treading old ground and offering little true food for thought. However, given Sirk’s German heritage (easy to forget given that his most famous films are about the dark side of the American family) and the fact that he’s not known for making such films I figured he’d give an interesting spin on the war movie.
John Gavin stars as Ernst Graeber, a German soldier fighting on the Russian-German front in 1944. He’s lucky enough to be granted 3 weeks leave after 2 years of fighting so heads back to Hamburg, his home city. He finds it in ruin, with unsympathetic locals giving little knowledge as to the whereabouts of his parents who have disappeared since bombing tore their neighbourhood apart. Whilst he searches for more information, he meets Elizabeth Kruse (Liselotte Pulver), the daughter of his old family physician (who has gone himself, taken away to the concentration camps). They quickly fall in love and get married as soon as they can, taking advantage of this glimmer of happiness within the impending doom surrounding them.
Focussing on characters on the German side of the conflict, although not a totally unique concept to Hollywood (All Quiet on the Western Front, also based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, is the most famous example), is fairly rare and always interests me more than the usual war films which focus on the Allied forces or affected civilians. As well as being slightly less common, I find it interesting to see how soldiers react to atrocities like the Holocaust being operated in their country’s name as well as looking at the psychology of soldiers fighting at the very end of the war, with defeat feeling inevitable. Sirk bookends the film, which largely follows Ernst’s time on leave, with scenes set on the front. So you get a good mix of perspectives too, even if the film’s core drama is small of scale, focussing on just two characters and their relationship.
In the first of these bookends you get some poetically poignant yet fairly harrowing sequences from the offset. A group of soldiers spot the hand of a corpse poking up through the snow and state that it “looks like spring is coming”. When they dig the rest of it out, they find their dead lieutenant looking up at them. As his frozen eyeballs begin to thaw another soldier comments on how it looks like he’s crying. Touches like this, although a bit ‘in your face’, are powerful and show Sirk’s strength in finding an effective balance between manufactured Hollywood gloss and true human poignancy.
And this quality permeates through the rest of the film. The relationship between the two leads is well handled, with their passion and desperation coming through strongly. Gavin isn’t the best of actors, which lets things down a little although Pulver makes up for it with an infectious charm fighting its way out behind the melancholy.
As is to be expected, the film looks great too, with Sirk making the most out of his wide Cinemascope frames yet again. His famous use of bold colours is toned down, instead offering a murkier look to match the subject matter. This doesn’t stop each shot from looking glorious in the way only the best Hollywood films from the era could manage. The decaying city around them makes for an especially dramatic backdrop, my favourite set being the bombed out art museum the couple stay in for a couple of nights.
As my score out of 5 suggests I wasn’t totally blown away with A Time to Love and a Time to Die though. As well as the weak lead performance from Gavin, the film as a whole was a little overlong and I got easily distracted during its over two hour running time. It does get a bit heavy handed too in some of the symbolism (the German officer’s appropriated mansion with hundreds of deer/stag’s heads mounted on the walls for example) even if the melodrama wasn’t over-baked.
And at the end of the day, as classy as the film is, I was never going to truly love it though. The best war films and melodramas can win me over from time to time, but in combination they just don’t create my kind of film, so whilst I can appreciate A Time to Love and a Time to Die, it’s difficult for me to praise it too highly. Those of a different opinion should probably add half a star or maybe a whole one though as this is an undeniably decent film from a director at the top of his craft.
A Time to Love and a Time to Die is out on now in the UK on Blu-Ray, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series (after being previously released on DVD back in 2009). The picture quality was very good. A line appeared at the side of the screen very occasionally, but generally the image is strong, with a naturally grainy image not getting in the way of rich detail and a preservation of the fairly subdued colour palette (be aware, the stills used in this post are not from the Blu-Ray). The audio was decent, but suffered slightly from the same noise reduction problems I noticed in The Tarnished Angels.
There are three featurettes/documentaries included. First up is Of Tears and Speed: According to Jean-Luc Godard which is a visually annotated recitation of the famous director’s original review of the film. This was a bit over-indulgent for my tastes, I’m not into the French style of over-analysing art and philosophising about it, comparing it to dozens of different works of literature and film classics, but it’s clearly passionately written and insightful at times. Fans of Godard will lap it up.
Next is an 18 minute interview with Wesley Strick, author of Out There in the Dark a novel loosely based on Sirk’s life. This is an odd featurette as Strick doesn’t offer much insight into Sirk’s work and life, other than telling of his estranged son who was part of the Hitler Youth movement and was killed during the war. This fact is obviously a clue as to Sirk’s passion for the subject matter in A Time to Love but the rest of this interview offers little else to enrich your experience of the film, which is only explicitly brought up in a graphic tacked on at the end.
Finally is a 50 minute piece interviewing Sirk and his wife Hilda from 1984. I must admit I didn’t really watch this through properly as I was distracted whilst it was on and it’s subtitled so demands your attention. It seemed very insightful though. My only quibble would be that the subtitles are synced to the French dubbed voiceover which isn’t actually anywhere near in time with Sirk’s voice, so I found it frustrating listening to long chunks of German before the English subtitles would reappear and catch up.
Added to these features you also get a music and effects track as well as a trailer for the film and, last but not least, one of the usual Masters of Cinema booklets which I didn’t receive this time, but they’re generally the equal of any documentary.