By David Sterritt.
Hans Detlef Sierck left Germany in 1937, arrived in the United States four years later, Americanized his name to Douglas Sirk, and directed his first Hollywood picture, Hitler’s Madman, in 1943, when the madman Adolf Hitler was still at large and ravaging the world. During the next decade he made movies in a wide array of genres, but he never stopped thinking about the Nazi ideology that had driven him and his German-Jewish wife to flee their country.
The great family melodramas of Sirk’s last Hollywood years, from Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955) through There’s Always Tomorrow and Written on the Wind (both 1956) to The Tarnished Angels (1957) and Imitation of Life (1959), grew out of a conscious decision to probe the mindset of middle-class America in an effort to understand how his own country’s petit bourgeoisie allowed itself to be so fatally inveigled by the Third Reich’s systematized malevolence. In his penultimate feature, the 1958 masterpiece A Time to Love and a Time to Die, he confronted Nazism more directly than ever before, creating one of his most psychologically perceptive and profoundly personal works. Its availability on both Blu-ray and DVD from Eureka! Entertainment’s splendid Masters of Cinema series is cause for celebration (leaving aside this edition’s weakness in the supplements department).
Sirk’s film closely follows the outlines of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben, published in 1954; the occasional Hollywood scriptwriter Orin Jannings is credited with the screenplay, although Remarque reportedly penned the final draft. Then as now, Remarque was best known in Germany, America, and everywhere as the author of the World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front, aka Im Westen nichts Neues, an international bestseller in 1929 and – notwithstanding Remarque’s claim that he was just reporting the ugly facts, not taking a political position – an astonishingly powerful antiwar statement to this day.
In its early pages, A Time to Love and a Time to Die reads like All Quiet on the Western Front redux, with German soldiers fighting – on the eastern front in World War II this time – under difficult and dangerous conditions. But while the earlier novel produced its underlying drama through grimly ironic contrasts between guts-and-glory war propaganda and the battlefield horrors that soldiers actually faced, A Time to Love and a Time to Die portrays men whose tribulations are made all the more miserable by the growing realization that they and their army are definitely, positively going to lose the war. The men’s loss of faith in their cause and hope for their future is the sorrowful reality at the story’s core.
In the movie as in Remarque’s novel, it’s verboten for soldiers to speak candidly about the looming defeat, and accurate news on the situation is scarce. So protagonist Ernst Graeber (John Gavin) gets quite a few surprises when he visits his hometown on a three-week furlough. Whole blocks have been leveled, terrifying air raids strike without warning, necessities are hard to find, luxuries are almost nonexistent, and his parents are missing from the family home, which is now a pile of bombed-out rubble.
The narrative follows Graeber’s search for information about his parents, his comradeship with soldiers in an infirmary where he takes shelter, and his encounters with an old schoolmate – one Oscar Binding (Thayer David), now a Gestapo officer – who gives him food, booze, and assistance with his quest. His most important meeting is with childhood acquaintance Elizabeth Kruse (Lilo Pulver), who becomes his lover and eventually his wife. The finale is every bit as tragic as that of All Quiet on the Western Front, but Sirk charges it with a desolate beauty as haunting as anything this consummate stylist ever created.
To appreciate how profoundly personal this project was for Sirk, you need to know a little of his history. While he was building a successful career in German theater and making numerous films for Ufa, the preeminent German studio, he married actress Lydia Brinken, and in 1925 their son, Klaus Detlef Sierck, was born. Brinken joined the Nazi party in 1929, years before Hitler came to power, and the couple divorced the same year. Sirk then married the Jewish actress Hilde Jary, whereupon Brinken won a court order barring him from seeing their little boy, whom she enrolled in the Hitler Youth and guided into a movie-acting career that quickly flourished, probably helped by the boy’s talent and definitely helped by the mother’s theatrical and political friends. (It might have flourished more if Joseph Goebbels hadn’t taken a dislike to the lad, barred him from further work, and packed him off to the army.)
Sirk never had personal contact with his son again, but was able to see him in some of the Nazi-era movies in which the boy acted for Veit Harlan and other directors. One can only imagine how emotionally fraught these vicarious encounters must have been for Sirk, and how bereft he must have felt when he learned after the war that his only child, age nineteen, had been killed in action on the Russian front. Close though the movie is to Remarque’s novel, you can’t help seeing A Time to Love and a Time to Die as a father’s tribute to a son he hardly knew, and perhaps an attempt to reconcile with him through art.
Rock Hudson was for Sirk what John Wayne was for John Ford, what Toshiro Mifune was for Akira Kurosawa, what Gunnar Björnstrand was for Ingmar Bergman…the list goes on, but you get the picture. Although female stars (Lillian Gish with D.W. Griffith, Marlene Dietrich with Joseph von Sternberg) also fit the bill, the strongest pairings of male directors with male stars have an alter-ego closeness that’s almost uncanny to behold as they develop over the years. Hudson was a tad too old to play Graeber in 1958, but Gavin’s equally self-possessed demeanor and similarly understated style suited Sirk’s requirements just as well; it’s a pity that they collaborated only on A Time to Love and a Time to Die and the inimitable Imitation of Life a year later.
Pulver, known as Liselotte Pulver in her many West German films, is amiable, easygoing, and warm as lovely young Elizabeth, and the top-notch supporting cast includes Don DeFore and Keenan Wynn as infirmary buddies and Jock Mahoney as a German soldier. Plus the reliably menacing Klaus Kinski as a Gestapo lieutenant who means our hero no harm, although you wouldn’t guess it to look at him.
Also in the cast is none other than Remarque, perfectly cast as Professor Pohlmann, a persecuted old scholar with a brave, pacifistic spirit. This was the writer’s only foray into the acting business, but he had a recurrent relationship with the movie world. Lewis Milestone’s adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, written in large part by the great Maxwell Anderson and George Abbott, earned four Academy Award nominations and won Oscars for best director and picture (it was released in 1930 as both a talkie and a silent, and both versions hold up extremely well today). Remarque later cowrote G.W. Pabst’s The Last Ten Days (Der letzte Akt, 1955), about Hitler in the bunker; carried on affairs with Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Hedy Lamarr; married Paulette Goddard when he finally settled down; and wisely died seven years before Sydney Pollack adapted his 1961 novel Heaven Has No Favorites (Der Himmel kennt keine Günstlinge) into the wretched Bobby Deerfield. His two antiwar novels are his proudest achievement, and the magnificent screen rendition of A Time to Love and a Time to Die is as stirring a testament to him – and to the consummate creative powers of Sirk himself – as anyone could wish.
David Sterritt is chair of the National Society of Film Critics, film professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art, and incoming editor-in-chief of Quarterly Review of Film and Video.