Douglas Sirk’s penultimate feature, and one of his most personal, brings his entire Hollywood career into stark relief. This adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of love in WWII Germany envisions a bombed-out wasteland that couldn’t be further removed from the Technicolor gloss of affluent America seen in his most famous films. There are no vibrant pastels or lush interiors decorated with fine upholstery or shiny bric a brac; here, whether inside or outside, it’s a seemingly monotonous ash gray or dirt brown. Whenever color arrives (usually a tree blossom or sprig of a leaf), it’s a miracle.
This seems to invert the formula established in other Sirk films, where the abundance of attractive surfaces amounts to overcompensation for dissatisfied lives lurking underneath. Here, it’s luxury that makes life worth living: the young lovers Ernst (John Gavin) and Elizabeth (Lilo Pulver) bluff their way into a fancy meal in an officer’s club, in a scene that defies gravity. What’s even more fascinating is how that famous Sirkian irony is turned on its ear. In films like All That Heaven Allows or Imitation or Life, Sirk lays ironic subtext into the dialogue or the mise-en-scene, such that it verges on mocking the characters’ myopic pursuits of happiness (while priming hipster camp laughter). Here the script is flipped: cynicism and irony wrought by wartime cruelty are the fashion, a way for soldiers and civilians alike to numb themselves from the inhumanity that engulfs them. It’s against this convention that the lovers fight, hanging on to a flickering sense of hope and earnestness (Gavin, a bit wooden, doesn’t quite carry it off, but Pulver more than compensates – it’s easy to see why Godard was smitten by her in his famous review of the film, as her doe-eyed litheness make her a prototype for Anna Karina).
What Sirk keeps consistent between this film and the American-set melodramas is his fixation with the fragility of what makes life worth living in a world of suffocating convention. Wealth and poverty prove to be equally dehumanizing. What matters are the frail bonds between people, enabled by fleeting moments of fantasy fulfillment. This isn’t tied to any overt political or social agenda. Quite the opposite, there’s a startling, paradoxical acceptance of the status quo as a fundamentally inescapable condition: it’s ground that gives birth to its own acts of defiance – these moments of transcendent beauty – and it’s the ground that smothers them out.
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The following citations were counted towards the placement of A Time to Love and a Time to Die among They Shoot Pictures Don’t They’s 1000 Greatest Films:
Antonio Jose Navarro, El Mundo (1995)
Enrique Alberich, Dirigido Por (1992)
Ian Cameron, Sight & Sound (1972)
Jose Maria Prado, Nickel Odeon (1994)
David Thomson, Have You Seen…? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008)
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004)
Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: War (1993)
For more than two hours, this somber drama, taken from a novel by Erich Maria Remarque and put on display at the Mayfair and Little Carnegie yesterday, goes through a labored explanation of how a young Nazi soldier, home on leave, makes love to and marries a nubile maiden amid the exploding clutter of a German city in 1944. Then, after getting the new wife settled with a nice old lady and also with child, it takes the young husband back to the front in Russia. And there it gets him ironically killed.
That’s all there is in this long picture—just an account of how two youngsters fall in love, despite air raids, food rationing, gauleiters and the fact that they don’t know where or how their parents are. No theme is solidly stated, no philosophical comment is implied—other than the obvious one of General Sherman, and that’s what nice Germans went through in World War II.
This again is a fault of this picture—it simply does not ring true. It has an air of studied contrivance and artificiality. Lilo Pulver, for instance, is winsome as the German girl, but she acts, under Douglas Sirk’s direction, with the airs and manners of a well-fed ingénue. Except for a trace of German-accent, you’d never dream she’s been near a bombed German city in World War II.
- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, July 10, 1958
…Next to Le Plaisir [Pleasure, Max Ophuls, 195s], this is the greatest title in all cinema, sound or silent, and also to say that I heartily congratulate Universal-International on having changed the title of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, which was called A Time to Live and a Time to Die [Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben, 1954]. In so doing, those dear old universal and international bandits have in effect set Douglas down in a circus which Boris Barnet would have been prodigiously happy to film, because it is ten times more battle-scarred and beautiful than Brooks’s: in other words, by replacing the world ‘live’ by ‘love’, they implicitly posed their director the question – an admirable starting point for the script – ‘Should one live to love, or love to live?’…
Before talking of form, let us speakof Liselotte Pulver’s. Everyone scorns it. But I like it. You think she’s skinny; but after all it is wartime, and the subject of the film is not: ‘Off with your pullover, Lise.’ For my part I have never found a German girl in the crumbling Third Reich so credible as I did in watching this young Swiss start nervously at each camera movement. I will go further. I have never found wartime Germany so credible as in watching this American film made in peacetime. Even more than Aldrick in Attack , Sirk can make things seem so close that we can touch them, that we can smell them. The face of a corpse frozen in the rime on the Russian front, bottles of wine, a brand-new apartment in a ruined city: one believes in them as though they had been filmed by a newsreel Camelflex instead of with a huge CinemaScope apparatus controlled by what one must call the hand of a master.
It is fashionable today to say that the wide screen is all window-dressing. Personally, my answer to all those Rene’s who haven’t got idees claires is a polite: ‘My eye!’. One need only have seen the last two Sirk films to be finally convinced that CinemaScope adds as much again to the normal format. One should add here that our old filmmaker has regained his young legs and beats the young at their own game, panning happily all round, tracking back or forwards likewise. And the astonishingly beautiful thing about these camera movements, which tear away like racing-cars and where the blurring is masked by the speed with which they are executed, is that they give the impression of having been done by hand instead of with a crane, rather as if the mercurial brushwork of a Fragonard were the work of a complex machine. Conclusion: those who have not seen or loved Liselotte Pulver running along the bank of the Rhine or Danube or something, suddenly bending to pass under a barrier, then straightening up hop! with a thrust of the haunches – those who have not seen Douglas Sirk’s big Mitchell camera bend at the same moment, then hop! straighten up with the same supple movement of the thighs, well, they haven’t seen anything, or else they don’t know beauty when they see it.
- Jean-Luc Godard, Cahiers du Cinema, 1959. Translated by Tom Milne and Craig Keller. Printed in Masters of Cinema DVD booklet.
[W]e slightly changed [the original title of Remarque's source novel A Time to Live and a Time to Die] for the non-German distribution into A Time to Love and a Time to Die. I was so insistent on this, for I felt it had to be a love story, mainly. The denunciation of Nazidom would have to take second place to the love story. You see, this picture was made in 1957. Hitler’s empire of a thousand years was history. Furthermore, I thought ‘die’ balanced ‘love’ very well. And going back to my idea of a title being a kind of prologue, it announces the theme of the picture. The terrible incongruity of killing and young love. I was enchanted to see that in Cahiers Godard did get the point, and made the title almost the base for his excellent and unusual review [...] What was interesting to me was a landscape of ruins and the two lovers. But again, a strange kind of love story, a love conditioned. Two people are not allowed to have their love. The murderous breath of circumstances prevents them. They are hounded from ruin to ruin. The lovers have nowhere to go for their love. Do you remember the scene in the hold restaurant? The lovers are imitating the joyful life of a lost past. There is a moment of happiness. Seemingly. There is food. There are friendly lamps. There is light. Their love has restored the world. Bang! It is destroyed. I was striving for this relationship between their love and the ruins. I hope it came off: the portrayal of this young and desperate love. Not just a boy and girl story, but two lovers in extreme circumstances.”
- Douglas Sirk, in Jon Halliday’s Sirk on Sirk, pp. 141, 144. Printed in Masters of Cinema DVD booklet
“Life is the most melodramatic story of all,” said Sirk. In 1929 in Germany he had divorced his first wife and married a Jew, a fact which the first wife used after Hitler won power to get a court order barring Sirk from contact with their son, then eight, whom she was turning into a Nazi and the top child star in German cinema: Claus Detlef Sierck. Sirk was able to see his son only in movies, sometimes as a Hitler Youth. And when he fled Germany, Sirk had to leave his son behind. Toward the end of the war Claus was drafted, sent to the Russian front, and reported missing in action. After the war Sirk came back to Germany, and searched in vain for traces of the son he had left behind. He asked interviewers not to publish these events during his lifetime. But he made a movie, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, that was autobiographical – about a boy who is sent to Russia and forced to commit atrocities, who meets a wonderful girl during a leave, then is quickly killed in Russia after a daring act of mercy. What more could such a father hope for such a dead son than that he had had the experience of a love like this before dying?
- Tag Gallagher, in Masters of Cinema DVD booklet.
Sirk’s motives for returning to Berlin seem as scrambled as those for his flight 21 years earlier. The Russian Front setting of Remarque’s source novel clearly had a personal significance, as Klaus Detlef Sierck (the son who had acted in several pro-Party pictures) had been killed in the Ukraine in 1944. However, it was never entirely certain whether Orin Jannings’s screenplay was a plea for the victors to understand the suffering endured by the vanquished during the last days of the conflict or whether the killing of the Good German by a vengeful Communist guerilla was intended to be Cold War propaganda.
Regardless of its objectives, this touching study of the brevity of happiness was hailed as a masterpiece by Jean-Luc Godard in an effusive Cahiers du Cinéma review that launched the Sirkian cult that still attracts copious devotees. However, German audiences deeply resented a fugitive recreating their misery, while the film was banned in both Israel and the Soviet Union. It was somewhat fitting, therefore, that when Sirk quit the States in 1959, he settled in Switzerland – which had, of course, remained neutral during the war.
- David Parkinson, Film in Focus
A masterpiece of mise-en-scene (1958) by Douglas Sirk, transforming an Erich Maria Remarque melodrama into a haunting story of the search for beauty in a dead world. John Gavin and Lilo Pulver are lovers who meet among the ruins of a bombed-out German town during World War II. Despite their efforts to make contact, happiness hovers just beyond their reach in Sirk’s metaphysically charged CinemaScope images. A stunning triumph of form, of the sort possible only in Hollywood. 132 min.
- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
Under the opening credits of Sirk’s penultimate masterpiece, set during World War II and filmed on location in Germany, the camera rests on the branches of a tree, its blossom forced early by the heat of a nearby bomb blast. It is the perfect symbol for the love between John Gavin’s German soldier on leave and a barely remembered childhood friend, Lilo Pulver: a love forced by the everyday facts of war. This superb adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel rests on a painful symmetry between the scenes at the Russian front and the central section in the half-ruined home town, and on a typically tough-minded acknowledgment of the irony that the doomed romance exists not in spite of the war, but because of it.
- Time Out
In a way, the lack of a well-structured plot is a minor quibble, as 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…
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.
- Adam Wilson, DVD Outsider
Remarque was a solid but second-rate writer who tended to recycle his own material; he turns up in Sirk’s movie as a forbidding-looking Professor who does a bit of preaching about God and responsibility in one heavy-handed scene toward the end. There are lots of sand traps like that in this script, but Sirk is a past master of handling the most dubious writing and acting and still somehow making it conform to his overall vision (surely he was made to handle the heavily seasoned works of a major writer like Thomas Mann, but Remarque will do in a pinch). There are echoes of Frank Borzage’s Remarque-inspired Three Comrades (1938) in the enclosing love story between Gavin and Pulver, but Sirk replaces Borzage’s warmth with his own stern detachment. He draws a charming performance from the German-born Pulver, and he tries his best with the pretty but very remote Gavin; these lovers are always ducking into cellars during air raids and either losing or stealing bottles of liquor, leaping from ruin to ruin until time, if not love, runs out.
Sirk said he liked the irony of the ending, but it comes across as a cheap attempt to copy the famous last shot of the film version of All Quiet on the Western Front, with a love letter substituted for a butterfly. Miklós Rózsca provides a stormy score that fits the forties time period, and the film has some amusing casting: A young Klaus Kinski has a film-halting bit as a Gestapo agent, and Dorothea Wieck, who played the sensual lesbian schoolteacher in the Weimar-era classic Mädchen in Uniform (1931) turns up briefly. The scenes depicting Gavin’s despicable Nazi school-hood friend are strangely handled, mainly because Sirk seems more interested in ridiculing the vulgarity of fascist cultural taste than in any more sweeping moral denunciation. This isn’t one of Sirk’s best films, but it is most likely one of his most personal. He was separated from his son by his first wife, who had wholeheartedly joined the Nazi party, and this lost son later died on the Russian front. In the last scenes of the movie, Sirk shows us several blond-haired boys ready to go off to war, and you don’t have to know his history to be moved by their forgone fate, or the artist who could use a small part of his own personal pain as a fully justified grace note in this, his penultimate Hollywood production.
- Dan Callahan, The House Next Door
Like the rough trilogy of films based on James Hilton’s novels (Lost Horizon, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Random Harvest), A Time To Love And A Time To Die is suffused with the inter-war desire to escape time – an escape that Sirk equates with his own characteristically intoxicating cinematography, with the result that Sgt Ernest Graeber’s (John Gavin) search for his parents during the two-week long furlough that relieves him from the black-and-white monotony of the Russian Front is effectively the search for Technicolour; or, alternatively, the desire to immerse himself in a fantastic distance from the ravages of war that becomes continuous with cinema itself, as evinced in one of its surrogates – a wedding night in which his new wife, Elizabeth (Lilo Pulver) throws glasses against a wall because she “saw it done in a movie once”, as well as the final, glassy screen, which beautifully combines his reflection with a confirmation that this intoxication is still just out of reach. As a result, all its surrogates – ‘no such places’, culminating with a suburban kitchen that has miraculously escaped desecration – fall short of the lurid aestheticism expected of Sirk by this stage – with the possible exception of the violent, periodic incursions of fire, whether literally or as an object of conversation, which tend to suggest that Technicolor can now only exist as an index of sheer horror – as if his irrealistic proclivities were so strong as to only admit of being indefinitely and tortuously postponed, rather than categorically excised.
- Billy Stevenson, A Film Canon
Maybe it’s the use of Eastman Colour stock rather than Technicolor, but at first sight A Time to Love… seems less stylised in its look than the other two (which were studio/backlot productions shot in “flat” widescreen). That’s not to say it doesn’t avoid a certain glossiness in its presentation: but then stomach-churning realism was not on the agenda (for reasons of censorship amongst other things). That doesn’t preclude a hard edge to this film: romantic it may be, soft-headed no. That’s also not to deny that the film is very well directed: whole books have been written about Sirkian aesthetics and mise-en-scène, which is beyond the scope of this review. The final image is reminiscent of that in All Quiet on the Western Front and just as powerful.
- Gary Couzens, DVD Times
After making a series of vibrant melodramas in the United States (such as “All That Heaven Allows”), Douglas Sirk returned to his native Germany to shoot the bitter Second World War story “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” (1958), based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque. A Wehrmacht private (John Gavin)—a good German, disgusted by Nazi atrocities—returns from the Russian front to his bombed-out town, falls in love with the daughter (Lilo Pulver) of a German dissident, and mixes with both committed Nazis and resisters. The romance has its longueurs, but both the battle and the home-front scenes, in which traces of beauty and friendship struggle against an overpowering sense of loss, are unusually well sustained and bitterly intelligent. Remarque himself appears as an anti-Nazi teacher who tells the hero that if he doesn’t return to the front his family will be threatened. Remarque knew what he was talking about: his sister was executed by the Nazis in 1943 as revenge against the writer, who was living in the United States.
- David Denby, The New Yorker
It was the penultimate Hollywood movie of the great German stylist Douglas Sirk and, like all his American films, the reputation of this quietly authoritative, initially undervalued picture has steadily grown since the 1960s. John Gavin plays the central character, Remarque himself has a small role as a liberal schoolteacher and the unforgettable ending echoes All Quiet. The movie has a poignant subtext. Sirk’s son, a beautiful child star raised as a Nazi by his first wife, died fighting on the Russian front. The film is accompanied by a booklet and three worthwhile documentaries.
- Philip French, The Guardian
Adapted from a novel by EM Remarque (who also wrote All Quiet on the Western Front), this is perhaps the bravest and most beautiful of war films. There are many movies that remind us War Is Hell but few with the courage to humanise the losing side. Sirk was always a more restrained director than his reputation as master of melodrama suggests; here he eschews easy sentiment and emotional bombast and his film is all the more heartbreaking for it. He does more than show the horror of war; he evokes its anguish.
On one hand A Time to Love and a Time to Die is a great film, gorgeously photographed and really well written but, on the other, it fails to convince because of the cast. John Gavin is about as American as you can get so doesn’t really pass as a German soldier and there are so many Americans in the cast (including Keenan Wynn – Major Kong in Dr. Strangelove) that they look like Americans in German uniforms, not German soldiers. Swiss actress Liselotte Pulver is a different matter, sounding German and putting in a fine performance.
- David Beckett, My Reviewer.com
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.
- Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews
An ordinary love and unexceptional people for the first time in Douglas Sirk. They watch what’s happening around them with wide startled eyes. Everything is incomprehensible to them, the bombs, the Gestapo, the lunacy. In a situation like that love is the least complicated thing of all, the only thing you can understand. And you cling to it. But I wouldn’t like to think about what would have happened to them if John had survived the war. The war and its horrors are only the décor. No one can make a film about war, as such. About how wars come about, what they do to people, what they leave behind, could well be important. The film is not pacifist, as there is not a second which lets us think: if it were not for this lousy war everything would be so wonderful or something. Remarque’s novel A Time to Love and a Time to Die is pacifist. Remarque is saying that if it weren’t for the war this would be eternal love. Sirk is saying if it weren’t for the war this would not be love at all.
- Bruno Andrade, Signo do dragao