Reviews and notes
Director Douglas Sirk’s penultimate Hollywood film, an adaptation of the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, might be one of his lesser-known later pictures. Nevertheless, it remains one of his most affecting, moving masterworks. John Gavin, a German foot soldier on an all-too-brief leave from the Eastern Front during WWII, returns to his hometown to find it a bombed-out shell. But he comes across unexpected tenderness amongst the ruins in the form of grown childhood friend, Liselotte Pulver. A classic evocation of the fleeting quality of a fragile, precious love soon to be immolated in a barbaric world consumed by flames. Legendary writer Remarque himself appears in a supporting role as Professor Pohlmann and Don Defore and Keenan Wynn are Gavin’s hapless comrades. Co-starring underrated performers Jock Mahoney and John Van Dreelen in prime supporting roles; and keep your eyes peeled for Klaus Kinski in one of his rare appearances in a 1950’s Hollywood film. "A masterpiece of mise-en-scene… a haunting story of the search for beauty in a dead world… happiness hovers just beyond reach in Sirk's metaphysically charged CinemaScope images. A stunning triumph of form of the sort only possible in Hollywood."
- Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader.
To think of Douglas Sirk is to think of American suburbia, extreme emotions and Rock Hudson. Much has been written about Imitation of Life
, Written on the Wind
, All That Heaven Allows
and Tarnished Angels
: sniffily dismissed as low, effeminate melodramas by contemporary critics, they were reclaimed by a later generation as sly attacks on American culture that elevated Sirk to auteur status. He was championed as a master of visual metaphor and irony, who celebrated the sumptuousness of domesticity whilst simultaneously using it to entrap his characters. In this film, Sirk's melodramatic visual style is fused with EM Remarque's nihilistic war story to create something more surreal and affecting.
John Gavin plays Ernst Graeber, a German soldier fighting on the Eastern front in 1944. As his regiment retreats from the advancing Russian forces, he is unexpectedly granted furlough and 3 weeks leave. Returning home to a shattered Hamburg, he begins a slow, futile search for his parents. He meets Elizabeth (Liselotte Pulver), daughter of his family physician and the two begin a romance. As Ernst's three weeks draw to a close, the two attempt to come to terms with Ernst's inevitable return to the front, as well as a Gestapo summons for Elizabeth...
The attraction of A Time to Love
isn't in its story, it's in the fusion of the melodramatic with the nihilistic. The film is full of grimly beautiful imagery. Early on in the film Ernst's regiment makes its way through a frozen village, and discover a withered hand reaching out from beneath the snow. An argument occurs about whether or not the dead soldier the hand belongs to is a casualty of the November or January campaign that is almost blackly humorous. As the soldiers dig him out, a young private remarks that the corpse appears to be crying, to which Ernest responds 'His eyeballs were frozen. They're thawing now.' This kind of darkness pervades the film, particularly in these early moments with the frontline troops, who are represented as wearily cynical of the ongoing campaign. When ordered to execute captured guerillas, one solider says he will shoot over the prisoners' heads so as not to be the one who kills them – Ernst again remarks that there would be no point as they would merely be commanded to reload and shoot again. Once Ernst returns home, all the characters he encounters are war-damaged: a soldier with gout who drinks to stay in hospital; a woman who thinks everyone who remains outside the bomb shelter during the raids must be dead; an old man who memorizes the desperate messages fleeing citizens left behind for their loved ones on the community notice board. Everyone is coloured by their experience of war, and there is a pre-occupation with the details of daily life in wartime: one old woman tells the couple that she pretends to the government that her daughter is still alive in order to keep her bedroom the way she left it, and one of Ernst's old school mates laughs about how he had his old history teacher put in a concentration camp as revenge for marking down his exams. This war-fatigue threatens to intrude on the few moments that look like genuine melodramatic excess: witness a scene in which Ernst dons a borrowed dress uniform and takes Elizabeth to a high-class restaurant, only to end up fleeing in terror when an allied bomb hits it. Similarly when Ernst and Elizabeth are planning their honeymoon, they realize they cannot go anywhere due to the reach of the German war machine and the animosity they will encounter in places like Paris and Amsterdam. It's a strategy that's very effective – just as the war impinges on the relationships and lives of the characters, so it does on out enjoyment of the Sirkian melodrama.
The visual layout of A Time to Love and a Time to Die
is much like Sirk's previous melodramas. Shards of light slice through frames, wrenching the characters away from each other; scenes are colour-coded to the emotions of the characters and tone of the world (here, mainly dull grey, brown and white); small camera movements track and nag the characters. Its emotive, heightened, passionate – the score swells and climaxes, the CinemaScope photography is brilliantly vivid; the frames are filled with material detail. Its part of what makes Sirk's films so seductive – they are beautiful to look at, almost distractingly so. What is particularly interesting – and impressive – about this film is the way this aesthetic plan is mapped onto wartime Germany. Costumes and props look authentically worn, the characters are all suitably bedraggled (with the exception of the star couple). There is a lot of location shooting, amongst bombed out buildings and piles of rubble and muddy battlefields, but Sirk still manages to maintain his highly composed, painterly look. The emotional desolation of the characters bleeds into the landscape, and vice versa: the realism of those bombsites is harnessed into the melodramatic project.
Unfortunately, some factors prevent this play between fatalism and melodramatic excess from being totally cohesive. John Gavin is eager and handsome but makes for a dull leading man, and Liselotte Pulver's character is a touch irritating. A supporting cast that includes Keenan Wynn, EM Remarque himself and a small role for Klaus Kinski is pretty solid, but there is a worrying split between the 'good' Germans who sport American accents and the 'bad' Germans who speak with native accents. Some of the characters likewise border on caricature: Thayer David as Binding and Kurt Meisel as concentration camp sadist Heini are a bit too much. For the most part however the film succeeds. It is a curious, imaginative film that blends the horrific and the excessive to surprisingly good effect, and can easily be mentioned in the same breath as Sirk's more canonical films.
- Adam Wilson, cineoutsider.com, 30 March 2009.
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