Masters Of Cinema #65 - A Time To Love And A Time To Die - Blu-ray Review

Sharing its anti-war theme with the director’s previous work The Tarnished Angels, released just a year earlier, Douglas Sirk’s A Time To Love And A Time To Die arguably sees the director in territory much trickier to navigate. Unusually for a 1950s Hollywood release, the film focuses solely on the German contingent of World War II, and with Sirk a German himself, it’s not too far a stretch to imagine his war film potentially swapping the stereotypical gung-ho Yanks or tally-ho Brits for unpalatable German patriotism. Instead, Sirk produces a film perceptive of vision and classy of execution, the director clearly out to show that, when you look at war close up, good and evil aren’t as simple as which country a person is from.

It’s clear from the opening moments of Sirk’s film that A Time To Love And A Time To Die is not a film in which war will be either glamourised or justified. The setting of an obliterated Russian village with only husks of former domiciles remaining, presented through the director’s cold and washed-out palette, gives the film an almost post-apocalyptic feel from the very start. Sirk doesn’t hold back throughout his opening act, with the ugly and brutal character of war regularly presented to the audience in unbridled fashion.

Following Private Ernst Graeber (John Gavin) on furlough out of this barbarous landscape, we initially share the young soldier’s joy and relief, only for Sirk to pull a cinematic bait-and-switch of perfection. Ernst initially returns to his hometown full of optimism and nostalgia, only to rapidly be faced with a scene starkly similar to the one he has just left behind in Russia. The pallid hues of the opening act persist throughout Sirk’s film, intentionally and subtly blurring the lines between the combat and civilian settings.

Whilst Ernst’s return to Germany also signifies the start of his relationship with Elizabeth (Liselotte Pulver), Sirk never allows his film to become a straightforward love story. Every romantic situation for Ernst and Elizabeth is intruded upon by the war, the director never allowing their relationship to run smoothly. Sirk also knows how to put together a decent action sequence, with Ernst’s fraught sprint across town through a daylight air raid a particular highlight.

The director shows a keen aptitude for satire at various points, but most successfully through Ernst’s childhood friend Oscar (Thayer David). Living in loathsome levels of luxury now that he is a high ranking Nazi officer, Oscar flaunts his home comforts - hot running water, a well-stocked liquor cabinet - before candidly bragging to Ernst about arranging a stretch in a concentration camp for one of his old school teachers, basically because he didn’t like him. A return visit to his home later in the film is a little too hard to swallow, feeling stylistically somewhat at odds with the rest of the film, but the character deftly demonstrates how many living in Germany felt about the Nazi officers in control by this point in the war.

Sirk unfortunately falters a little in his final act and coda, spending a stretch too long with Ernst and Elizabeth in Germany and placing them in a situation which just feels far too good to be true, especially when compared to what has preceded it. The final scene also sees the director ramp up the melodrama to almost unbearable levels during the closing scenes, coming dangerously close to smothering his poignant parting message with soaring strings and clich├ęd tragic imagery. But taken as a whole, A Time To Love And A Time To Die is a worthy and often unique war film, showing a perspective on World War II refreshingly not often seen and delivering a message about conflict that resonates distinctly through the decades since its release.

Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.

A Time To Love And A Time To Die is released in the UK on Monday 23rd September 2013

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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