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Emotional Exile: Douglas Sirk’s A Time To Love And A Time To Die (1958) – Blu-ray review

September 20, 2013 by Simon Kinnear in At Home, Retro with 0 Comments

An exile returns to Germany, and confirms that the story he’s been telling in Hollywood has always been an allegory of stifled freedom.

A Time To Love And A Time To Die
(Douglas Sirk, 1958)

Few historical events have been filmed with the speed and regularity as World War Two – indeed, there’s a case to be made that cinema is divided into pre- and post-war categories, as the world’s leading filmmaking nations were significantly altered by those tumultuous times. One of the biggest shifts occurred in American cinema, which became second home to a generation of European directors ousted from their homelands by the carnage. Their names read like a roll call of the greats – Lang, Renoir, Wilder… and Douglas Sirk.

It would be several years before the latter was recognised in the same breath as his contemporaries, but he was no less astringent in developing a cinematic worldview shaped by exile. His “women’s pictures” are studies of people trapped by conformist, hierarchical societies, his subversive eye noting the fascism inherent even in the free world. But, unlike the explicitly pessimistic Lang, Sirk sweetened the brew by framing his bleak endings as tragic romantic melodramas.

In A Time To Love And A Time To Die, the subtexts explode into action as violently as the ever-present bombs which threaten the characters throughout the film. Based on fellow German exile Erich Maria Remarqué’s novel, it charts three weeks in the life of a Wehrmacht private on leave, who gradually discovers love, politics and personal responsibility.

This is an unusual film for 1950s Hollywood; it would be another two decades before Sam Peckinpah (in Cross Of Iron) would make a film told from the German point-of-view, and that is regarded to this day as a radical breakthrough. Sirk’s study has slipped through the net, probably because aside from the rhyming sequences of slaughter at the front that bookend the film, it’s more concerned with the experiences of everyday Germans in a typical small town. Yet even this is unusual, since it is the guilty secret of the Allied victory that thousands of civilians were killed during bombing raids.

Demoralising? Far from it: the story is a wake-up call that such actions were regrettable but necessary, precisely because the banal tyranny of Nazi bureaucracy – and the more tangible persuasion of the Gestapo – meant that innocence is relative. Everybody seen here has been coerced into the war effort, or else risks being shipped to the concentration camps. The evocation of this dual life is brilliantly realised considering that Remarqué and Sirk had fled Germany long before this became reality, but it’s another version of the familiar Sirk story (seen in All That Heaven Allows and others) about the polite lies we tell ourselves.

The difference here is that John Gavin’s Everyman soldier, Gräber, stops lying.  Sirk’s elegant long takes and fluid Cinemascope camera movement provide the anatomy of a psychological change, as Gräber is exposed to unpalatable truths through the calm observation of the style. At the beginning, when he is ordered to kill alleged guerrillas, the camera stays on Gavin – the character self-censoring as surely as Hollywood standards censored the result of the firing squad. Yet the longer the film goes on, the less patience Sirk has for hiding things, as Jewish activists emerge from the shadows and unrepentant Nazis create grim models of their killing methods, while Gräber watches, takes notes, decides.

The catalyst? Love, of course: this is Sirk. Lilo Pulver’s Elisabeth, daughter of an imprisoned political prisoner, is one step on from Gräber in her vocal distaste of the Nazis, but she is still compelled to work in a war factory and pragmatic enough to drink booze proffered by the enemy.  But love gives each the strength to realise their self-deception, because now there is somebody else looking at them.

The film’s incredible centre-piece sees Gräber take Elizabeth on a date to a secret Nazi hang-out, a fine dining establishment where (presumably sequestered) vintage wine flows freely. It is a bubble of perfection, the kind of gorgeously romanticism in which Sirk flourished – yet the bubble is punctured by yet another air raid, and the lovers are forced to take shelter, the rottenness of the cause laid bare. Love will now take a different direction: one less silent (although no less bleak) than Sirk’s usual love affairs. And while the wooden Gavin is no Bogart, what follows rivals Casablanca as a study in stepping out of personal exile into danger – quite literally, in the astounding, visceral sequence where Gräber runs headlong into a bombing run while buildings burn and collapse around him.

A Time To Love And A Time To Die is released on Blu-ray on Monday 23rd September.  In a typically lush Masters of Cinema package, it comes with extensive extras about Sirk’s career.

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