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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: "A Time To Love And A Time To Die" (Sirk, 1958)

Glenn Kenny
The immaculate dissolve above occurs very near the end of Sirk's 1958 masterpiece, his penultimate Hollywood film. The film's hero, Ernst Graeber (John Gavin), a German soldier who we first see as part of a firing squad executing unarmed Russian villagers, has experienced his own resurrection from moral suicide in a lengthy sojourn back home in bombed-out Berlin, 1944. A sojourn in which he has found love among the ruins with young Elizabeth (Lilo Pulver), squalor and decadence among the Nazi officer class via his old school chum Oscar (Thayer David), and clarity and the ability to forgive himself through an old teacher, Professor Pohlmann (Erich Maria Remarque, also the author of the novel on which Orin Janning's screenplay is based). Having done all this, Ernst is obliged to return to the front and meet his fate. And so we dissolve from the view through a cracked window in Berlin, where life struggles to continue, to a no-man's land of destruction and death. It is one of the most movingly anxious moments in Sirk.
As we learn from the supplements included in the Eureka!/Masters of Cinema DVD, director Sirk had a son that he never knew, a son who died a German soldier. He looked at this picture as a sort of tribute to the boy he never knew, and made one of his most charged and sincere films. Yes, it is stylized; yes, it has a veneer that is both Hollywood and Sirkian. But it is also thoroughly sincere. In the interview book Sirk on Sirk, the director recalls that he wanted Paul Newman for the role of Ernst but was given Gavin, the young actor Universal was grooming to be the next Rock Hudson. Sirk came to appreciate Gavin's unformed earnestness. What Gavin and ingenue Pulver brought to their roles was a simplicity that was entirely suitable.
Also very simple is the intensity of young Jim Hutton, appearing under the name Dana J. Hutton and playing Hirschland, an untested soldier who literally cannot believe he's being asked to kill unarmed civilians. "What if I shoot over their heads?" he desperately asks Ernst. "We've all tried that," Ernst says, himself almost as weary as death. "We only had to do it again. It's like...executing them twice." The Germans then make light of their task, trying to get drunk on the "good Russian vodka" they've pilfered from their victims, only to end up squabbling like hens and destroying their loot. And Hirschland blows his brains out.
Above:  Ernst (John Gavin) finds Professor Pohlmann (Erich Maria Remarque) in hiding.
Above: Ernst visits high-living Nazi Oscar (Thayer David) and Visconti-anticipating Nazi B-girl (unknown).
Above: Love among the ruins: Ernst and Elizabeth (Lilo Pulver) sleep with Old Europe.
Just as every single image of the film is charged, so too is practically every line of Janning's screenplay, which manages to be constantly aphoristic but never turgid or stilted. Pohlman's observation of the "goodness" of some Nazis: "Some adore their mothers. Some cry when their dogs are dying..." One traverser of Berlin's ruins: "Enjoy the war, my friends, the peace will be awful." A high-living roisterer's reaction to a smashed champagne glass: "I saw that in a movie once, but I forgot who cleaned it up." "You're smiling—why aren't you screaming?" And so on.
The Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD is in several respects almost identical to the excellent 2007 French disc from Carlotta. The superbly detailed video transfer appears to be the same. Some supplements—a film montage with Jean-Luc Godard's rapturous review of the film as the soundtrack, an interview with screenwriter Wesley Strick about his Sirk-inspired novel, and a television interview with the maestro himself—are also here. But the MOC version has English subs where the Carlotta hasn't, and also an exceptional (as usual) booklet of texts, among them the aforementioned Godard review and a Sirk appreciation by Tag Galagher.
Ernest Hemingway once said, "Never think that war, no matter how necessasry, nor how justified, is not a crime." By viewing World War II from the side of a character who is both crime's perpetrator and victim, Sirk crafts an anti-war film of sustained power, topped by a note of tragic irony even more pertinent than the one that ended Remarque's prior anti-war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. Too long put to the side of Sirk's other masterpieces, MOC's release of the picture should help put it with the top-shelf Sirk, where it belongs.
The Eureka!/MOC DVD of A Time To Love And A Time To Die is released on March 30.

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