In the beginning of A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Douglas Sirk 1958) there is a scene where a group of German soldiers at the eastern front see a frozen hand in the snow-covered ground. It is not just the hand, it is clearly attached to a body hidden in the snow. So they dig it out and it turns out it is a comrade of theirs, who had been missing for some time. As the body is removed from its ice package it starts to melt, including the frozen eyeballs, making it look like the dead man is crying.
It is an opening which is both shocking and poetic, and sets the tone of the film very well. A film which is ambitious and unsettling, working on several layers. It is partly a love story, between a young German soldier and a girl he meets when he is on leave for three weeks; it is partly a film about Germany, about a once cultured and civilised country now consumed by death, corruption and despair, where fear and madness has taken hold of the German soul, and how it is perhaps necessary for Germany to be destroyed in order for it to come back to life. But it is also a film by a man, Douglas Sirk, who was German but left it in 1937 with his Jewish wife. Behind stayed his former wife who had become a Nazi and their son who was a soldier in the war and died at the Russian front. So he went back to Germany 14 years after the war to make a film about it, about Germany, and about the son that he had lost (twice, considering the son stayed when Sirk left in 1937.)
It is based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque called Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben which means A Time to Live and a Time to Die. When the book was translated into English the title got the word Love instead of Live, and became more poetic for it. Remarque also plays a part in the film, as a professor hiding from the Gestapo. It is one of several adaptations of his writing, earlier successful efforts include All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone 1930) and Three Comrades (Frank Borzage 1938), but they are not like this film.
At one point a woman is summoned to Gestapo headquarters and as she is not home her husband goes instead. When he gets there he is given a small wooden box and a document to sign. He looks at it with confused eyes and asks "What is this?" The Gestapo clerk says, emotionless, "That is a receipt for the ashes of your wife's father." This is the first they have heard about him for a very long time but for the Gestapo it is just an annoying routine, paper work that must be dealt with. They killed him, now the remains must be handled according to the manual, the signatures collected, the papers rubber stamped and properly filed.
In another scene the young soldier on leave meets an old school-friend by chance, a man who is now an important member of the Nazi party. ("Imagine that. Me, the milkman's son.") He invites the soldier to his home, and asks if he wants to take a bath. The soldier says yes, and after he has taken of his clothes and sat down in the bathtub the other man joins him. Not in the water but he sits on the side of the tub, and they drink wine together, whilst the Party man talks flippantly about concentrations camps. Later there is a party scene in the same house, filled with drunkenness, seductions and self-loathing, close to surreal, that Luchino Visconti might have approved of. An uncomfortable message is that there is no escaping the guilt for what has happened, is happening. "We're only following orders." is not a valid excuse. The only one free of guilt is a Jew hiding in the ruins.
The scene above is set in a museum, destroyed by bombs, in which the young lovers have taken shelter, a poignant symbol of what has been lost, the art and history of Germany a victim, but still there under the wreckage to be brought back for a new generation. As it happened I read W.G. Sebald's novel Austerlitz (one of the greatest of books) shortly after I had re-watched A Time to Love and a Time to Die and it struck me that the two work well together, as stories about the trauma in the heart of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century.
There are other unforgettable images all through the film, such as a black horse-driven hearse abandoned on a street during a bombing raid, or a rocking horse on fire outside a home, or children's drawings on a wall of bombs falling. As always with Sirk every scene, every shot, every image is a symbol of something larger. By the river in the town a tree is in blossom, although it is too early in the year, not warm enough. But a bomb has started a fire and the heat from the fire, while damaging half of the tree, has made the other half blossom. Life and death, beauty and ugliness, in the same tree, side by side. It is there too in Lilo Pulver's wonderful performance of Elisabeth, the young girl, combining pride, fear and an urge for happiness, always under a deep cloud of sadness. The young soldier, played by John Gavin, is more consumed by doubt and guilt. But the sadness covers him too.
The two young lovers do not have much time, he will soon go back to the Russian front and death is inevitable. So they must date, fall in love, sleep together and get married in just a few days. There is no time for anything but honesty and openness. At the same time they are worried about their families; whether they are alive and, if they are alive, where they are. This is not really a time for love, but love we must because why else go on living?
Between 1955 and 1959, Sirk made All That Heaven Allows (1955), There's Always Tomorrow (1956), Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1957), A Time to Love and a Time to Die and Imitation of Life (1959), a streak of extraordinary films. He had made fine films before, such as Lured (1947), Has Anybody Seen My Gal (1952) and All I Desire (1953), but it was in those final years he was at his best. Most of them were shot by cinematographer Russell Metty, produced by Ross Hunter (two by Alfred Zugsmith), and with music by Frank Skinner. However, on A Time to Love and a Time to Die, the only member of Sirk's regular crew who participated was Metty. Miklós Rozsa wrote the music and Robert Arthur was producer.
Sirk made two other films between 1955 and 1959, Interlude (1957) and Battle Hymn (1957), but those I have not seen, and they seem to be regarded as minor work, by critics and by Sirk. I will eventually find out for myself.