A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE
(director: Douglas Sirk; screenwriters: Orin Jannings/from the novel “A Time to Live and a Time to Die” by Erich Maria Remarque; cinematographer: Russell Metty; editor: Ted J. Kent; music: Miklos Rozsa; cast: John Gavin (Ernst Graeber), Lilo Pulver (Elizabeth Kruse), Jock Mahoney (Immerman), Don DeFore (Hermann Boettcher), Keenan Wynn (Reuter), Erich Maria Remarque (Professor Pohlmann), Dieter Borsche (Captain Rahe), Thayer David (Oscar Binding), Barbara Rutting (Woman Guerilla), Klaus Kinski (Gestapo Lieutenant), Dorothea Wieck (Frau Lieser), Charles Régnier (Joseph), Kurt Meisel (Heini), Clancy Cooper (Sauer), Bengt Lindström (Steinbrenner), Paul Frees (Voices of several characters), Jim Hutton (Hirschland); Runtime: 133; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Arthur; Universal Pictures; 1958)
“Douglas Sirk’s haunting masterpiece wartime romance story is set in 1944.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Douglas Sirk’s haunting masterpiece wartime romance story is set in 1944, during the last days of the war. It was filmed in Germany and in CinemaScope. The film is adapted from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel “A Time to Live and a Time to Die.” Remarque has a cameo as a Professor Pohlmann, who is being hunted by the Gestapo for helping Jews escape. The author was known for his acclaimed anti-war novel “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
After not being home for two years and fighting a losing battle for seven months at the Russian front, disillusioned German soldier Ernst Graeber (John Gavin) goes on a three week furlough to his hometown. The once mighty German army’s advance into Russia is now a retreat, and the war effort is doomed.
At home Ernst finds a bombed-out city and can’t locate his parents, as his residence has been bombed and he now must live in an army infirmary barracks. He is grasping at straws in his search, since the German bureaucracy offers little assistance, but on a whim he goes to the home of his family physician Dr. Kruse. But the home has been confiscated by the Gestapo and the doctor’s pretty daughter Elizabeth (Lilo Pulver) who is still allowed to live there but under the command of a miscreant lady air warden, informs him that her dad has been taken to a concentration camp. After a rocky start due to miscommunication, the hot-tempered nice girl falls madly in love with the handsome, gallant, and earnest young private. But they have a doomed relationship, as it exists only because of the war and takes place in the desolation and ruins of their hometown. They end up living in the street after her residence is bombed. Even the factory where the former classical pianist is forced to work as a sewer of uniforms, is bombed. Sirk contrasts that even in these horrid conditions, there’s a tremendous difference in how the rich and poor live. He films the couple taking shelter in a hard to breathe area with the unfortunates of her residence and with the wealthy in a private restaurant club experiencing an air raid, as the important restaurant patrons are entertained in the airy shelter by a singer and are drinking the best wine.
To show how far things have changed for Ernst since the conflict he runs into his school acquaintance Otto Binding, now a big-shot Nazi party district leader who lives in wealthy decadence, who is entertaining the sadistic concentration camp head (Kurt Meisel) at an all-night orgy. Otto offers to help find his parents and a place to stay, but Ernst realizes that he can’t trust Otto after he excuses all his Nazi cohorts’ duplicitous actions by saying he is not responsible for what others do. The war has made the previous loser Otto a somebody through his position of power. But the power has gone to his head and his perverted pornographic world is compared to the innocent love between Ernst and Elizabeth, as all the Nazis like Otto have helped create the world nightmare from their own evil cravings.
Sirk goes out of his way to show not all Germans are Nazi madmen, but he comes to the conclusion that though there were some good men there were still not enough of them. One of the good men was Ernst’s former teacher Professor Pohlmann, whom he goes to for advice and finds the professor risking his life to hide a Jew (Régnier).
Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.
Trying to forget the war and all the misery around them, the couple get married. But when the furlough is up, the reluctant soldier has no choice but to go back and fight in a losing war for things he no longer believes in. Ernst is murdered by the Russian civilians whose lives he just saved, as the tragic outcome shows how the world’s vision is so blurred that it cannot separate the Nazis from the German people.
The film’s urgent anti-war message is best captured in the premature bloom of tree blossoms in the hometown, caused not by nature but by the bombings. As for the film’s belief in humanity overcoming evil, the answer it comes up with is taken from the lips of Erich Maria Remarque: “Without doubt, there would be no need for faith.” There is a strange universal beauty found in the unlikely Hollywood film about a WW11 German soldier as the hero. The beauty is in the empirical images of the fearful symmetry between the horrors at the Russian front and the hometown in partial ruins, and in the doomed romantics trying to overcome the world gone crazy around them.
REVIEWED ON 9/10/2003 GRADE: A https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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