The Russian Front, 1944. A group of German soldiers happen upon a corpse encased in snow, apparent only by a frostbitten hand reaching towards them from the ground. “Looks like spring is coming,” one of the soldiers remarks. “That’s the one sure way to tell. The sun digs them up.” When the soldiers brush away the snow to find a man wearing a German uniform, they uncover the body and realize he is an officer from their regiment. “He looks like he’s crying,” one of the soldiers observes. Another replies with the blunt corrective, “His eyeballs are frozen and they’re thawing now.” So begins Universal International’s melodrama of love among the ruins, A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel published in 1954.
To commemorate the birthday of German-born director Detlef Sierck (1897-1987), better known to U.S. audiences by his professional name in Hollywood, Douglas Sirk, I want to revisit his penultimate film—also, I would argue, his greatest. Along with the making of The Tarnished Angels, another late career masterpiece released the previous year, Sirk was never allowed as much creative freedom on a production. A Time to Love and a Time to Die concerns a young, disillusioned German soldier, who falls in love with a woman in his family’s bombed-out village while searching for his parents during a three week furlough before returning to the Russian Front.
On location in Germany, the spectacular Eastmancolor and CinemaScope shooting gives the film the visual weight of an epic, but its focus is more intimate and, in fact, quite personal for the director. Sirk was a leftist intellectual living in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. His ex-wife joined the Nazi party and legally forbade him from seeing their son, Klaus Detlef Sierck, as he had remarried a Jewish woman. Over the years, his son attained stardom as the leading child actor of Nazi Germany, and the only way for Sirk to see him was to go to the movies. In the spring of 1944, Klaus was killed on the Russian Front, and Sirk viewed A Time to Love and a Time to Die as an opportunity to imagine his son’s last weeks onscreen: a story Sirk would never know and a film that the Nazis would have most certainly prohibited.
The film has generated enough support to ensure a reputation among cinephiles, including important publications by Jean-Loup Bourget, Fred Camper, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and, most prominently, Jean-Luc Godard. At the time of their original release, Sirk’s Hollywood films were dismissed by reviewers in the U.S. who equated their melodramatic style with bad taste, but Godard’s review in a 1959 issue of the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma represented one of the first critical attempts to take Sirk seriously as a film artist (an “auteur”).
However, following Jon Halliday’s book-length interview Sirk on Sirk (1972) and Sirk’s subsequent take-up in English-language film scholarship of the 1970s, films such as All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959) were reclaimed as exemplary of the Brechtian approach that he brought to his Hollywood projects, imbuing studio-assigned material with irony and contradictions at the level of film form. The midcentury family melodrama is thought to be the primary locus for his signature style and personal vision, as well as a genre that could be manipulated for progressive or subversive critique of postwar America’s bourgeois ideology. Thus, Sirk became a favorite both for auteurist film criticism and for Marxist, feminist, and psychoanalytic film theory, although perhaps at the expense of a film such as A Time to Love and a Time to Die, which belongs to the tradition of the romantic rather than the domestic melodrama and now occupies a marginal place in the Sirk canon.
As the title promises, the film is about love as much as it is about death, and they are inextricably linked in the film’s exploration of what it means to live and accept personal responsibility under the persistent threat of annihilation. The visual motif of cherry blossoms introduced in the opening credits metaphorically compares lovers Ernst (John Gavin) and Elizabeth (Liselotte Pulver) to a tree forced to bloom from the heat of a bomb’s explosion. Yet, as their blossoming romance is both enabled and interrupted by the war around them, they are constantly uprooted in their pursuit of a sustainable environment to make a home, from a one-room apartment to the rubble of an art museum to the cottage of a benevolent stranger (even a gourmet restaurant provides a temporary refuge as bombs are about to drop). The florid beauty almost overwhelms the story, and that seems to be the point. Sirk insists that self-discovery and emotional fulfillment may be born in these hostile conditions, if only apprehended in fleeting moments, for we know that the inevitable full bloom of spring has a moribund irony in this film.
The United States, 2017. An executive order barred travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations from entering the country. The federal budget plan proposed de-funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowmnet for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Academic integrity has been attacked by anti-tenure legislation and the appointment of an unqualified Secretary of Education who supports the privatization of public schools, to say nothing of the current administration’s claims of “alternative facts.” In these threatening political times, a case for revisiting a Classical Hollywood melodrama might be seen as a retreat from the present (at worst) or a quaint, even romantic appeal in the name of aesthetics (at best). But as historian Timothy Snyder warns us, “Post-factuality is pre-facism.” A Time to Love and a Time to Die is not only an anti-Nazi period piece and an underrated work of a canonical director, but a reminder of immigrant contributions to U.S. culture, the urgency for art and critical thinking to understand the world we live in, and the ongoing potential for cinema as a response to institutionalized oppression. Sirk may be relevant for us now more than ever before.
Featured Image credit: Soviet soldiers in Jelgava, August 1944. Доренский Л, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.