LEADING ACADEMIC AND CLASSIC CINEMA AFICIONADO MATTHEW HALL REVIEWS THE LATEST MASTERS OF CINEMA RELEASE FROM EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT; DOUGLAS SIRK'S A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE (1958)
In the 1930s Hans Detlef Sierck started making short melodramas set in exotic lands, which proved enormous box-office hits in his native Germany. As his career was beginning, unfortunately so was the rise of fascism in Europe. Because Sierck was politically opposed to the Nazis, as well as having a Jewish wife, he decided to flee the country, first to Switzerland and then to the United States. Eventually in Hollywood, his name was anglicised to Douglas Sirk, the name that would become famous for creating lush melodramas throughout the 1950s like All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life (1959). In 1958 Sirk created a film starring John Gavin and his chiselled jaw as a German soldier fighting on the Eastern Front. A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque (best known for All Quiet on the Western Front) and filmed in widescreen Cinemascope would be heralded by Jean-Luc Godard as Sirk's masterpiece, and is now released on Eureka! Entertainment's Masters of Cinema Blu-ray collection.
Ernst Graeber is a private fighting for the Fatherland at the Eastern Front in the painful closing months of the war in Europe. As the Germans fall further and further back in retreat no-one is under any illusions that the war is already lost, and a cynical gallows humour has spread among the men, except for those who retain a fascist fanaticism for something to hold on to, something to make them feel in control. The bitter violence is introduced early when the soldiers are ordered to shoot civilian prisoners. Experienced men like Ernst take on the burden of committing war crimes under orders from authority with grim resignation, suppressing their burning consciences, but for a younger recruit the gross reality of his own actions drives him to later take his own life.
Ernst is offered a piece of rare privilege by receiving his first furlough for two years, meaning he can travel back home on leave for two weeks. Arriving home Ernst finds his city in rubble, his address and family gone. Although the place isn't named, it has befallen a fate similar to that of Cologne or Hamburg - buildings that are not already rubble and ash will be soon, and the civilian population are subject to nightly raids from Allied bombers. Ernst meets Elizabeth Kruse (Lilo Pulver), the daughter of a political prisoner, and their affection quickly blossoms into love. Together Ernst and Elizabeth search to discover the fate of their parents, and attempt to carve out a future for themselves despite the bleak desperation and suffocating state apparatus bearing down on them. Their love acts as a doomed beacon of sanity in an insane world.
Given the seriousness of the subject matter it is strange that Sirk sticks to the American melodrama style so honourably that at times it borders on the absurd. Even the images of a bombed out city are in camp colours. This is not a weakness of the film, but instead an unusual strength, one which is the hallmark of Sirk's melodramas. The key messages of the film - staunchly anti-war, German guilt for countless crimes, the redemptive power of love and the quiet dignity of 'life going on' - are buried underneath a sweeping Hollywood score of string orchestras, full glory Technicolor and romantic soppiness. In disguising the seriousness of the sentiments with sentimentality itself Sirk could be relatively bold with his ambitions in the Hollywood studio system; approaching a challenging topic like the everyday civilian and military life under Nazi fascism, from the perspective of the Germans themselves, with arguably more directness than an all-out War film at the time would have been able to pursue.
The conflicts of the melodrama become the very conflicts of the German conscience: do they protect themselves at the expense of others, are individuals responsible for collective actions, where can they find humanity in a relentlessly inhuman world, life may go on but what kind of life will it be after such horrors? It's not every melodrama that can show you the callousness of paranoid Gestapo officers, keenly critique the decadent hypocrisy of party bureaucrats or interrupt a honeymoon scene with blaring air-raid sirens.
It is technically impressive too, the panning and tracking movements of the camera are so small and fluid, happening in small bursts in between moments of static dialogue that one could literally blink and miss it. The movements keep us constantly locked into the world of the protagonists without perhaps ever quite realising how it's happened, this is sleight-of-hand cinema, the effects work so well that they're seamless; they don't even look like effects at all. This is highly praised by Jean-Luc Godard in an animated essay adapted from a Cahiers du Cin ma article which is included on the extras. Also included are extensive interviews with Sirk, exploring his filmmaking approach and personal philosophy, and with screenwriter Wesley Strick who fictionalised Sirk's life as a Europeanmigrin Hollywood into a novel, who provides a lot of context on Sirk's personal life at the time of making the film. In the extras one can discover how Sirk lost his estranged son at the Eastern Front, making A Time to Love and a Time to Die more than just a tragic melodrama, it is also a personal atonement in the form of a cinematic masterwork.
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