To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up…
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”
– Ecclesiastes 3:1–3, 8
Douglas Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1954 novel of the same name, is a work of contradictions and unexpected combinations. A mere glance at the title of the film elucidates an interesting connection – that love is synonymous with life, and that death is but a season of life. For Sirk, who had already proved his mastery of the seasons in All That Heaven Allows (1955), this was a chance to maneuver from one extreme to another, from the horrors of war to the passions of a fresh romance. Objects of beauty are perverted into things of terror, be it the ominous strum of the strings of an open piano or the sheer fabric of a gown suddenly engulfed in flames.
Opening on a tree in full bloom, the film shows it wilt with the change of the seasons over the course of the opening credits. This tree will play an interesting thematic role in the film, as the protagonists eventually find it blossoming in winter because of the heat from the fire of a bomb – something that encapsulates the dichotomy in the title.
In the midst of Germany’s decline near the end of World War II in 1944, Ernst Graeber (John Gavin) is a Nazi soldier on the Russian front. Numbered among his regiment are war-hardened soldiers who largely follow orders because it’s their duty and not their passion — this moral dilemma being one of the film’s central debates. In these early scenes, the timid Private Hirschland (Jim Hutton, in his first screen role) is assigned to a firing squad to kill Russian villagers believed to be guerrillas. Dramatically, his character is juxtaposed against Gavin’s to demonstrate how far Graeber has come from having a soul to simply “following orders.” Still, when word of a three-week furlough from the front line comes in, the possibility of Graeber’s humanity is renewed.
“Have you any idea how long your life is?” asks Reuter (Keenan Wynn), a gout-ridden German soldier. “Three weeks – as long as your furlough. Three weeks of life, then death holds the trumps!” With that, we become more conscious of the time-sensitive element of Graeber’s return to the home front, though little is left of home upon his arrival. Bombed by the Allied forces, all that remains of his parents’ apartment building is rubble, and their whereabouts are unknown to all the residents who have remained local. In the process of looking for his parents, Graeber unexpectedly finds love in the form of his parents’ physician’s daughter, Elizabeth (Liselotte Pulver). Like the tree that has bloomed in wintertime, their love begins during wartime, but it doesn’t begin outside of the grasp of God.
Time, in a way, becomes the scapegoat for all of their problems. Whether it’s that they’re living and discovering one another in the wrong time or that they don’t have enough time in general, Graeber and Elizabeth feel that they and their shared love are lost in the maelstrom of human history. Each date that they go on is interrupted by air raids, one in particular bringing them close to tragedy, but all of this occurs as God has willed for his purposes … but this is a work of fiction, so it’s also in the hands of Sirk, Remarque and screenwriter Orin Jannings.
In the spirit of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, there is also a time for doubt and a time for faith. This is addressed head-on when Graeber visits his old professor, who is secretly hiding a Jew from the pervasive threat of the Gestapo even after he served a brief sentence in a concentration camp. Fear is in abundance for both the German home front and for Graeber, who no longer knows what to believe, as his complicity and the actions of his fellow party members begin to weigh heavily on his heart. “Without doubt, there would be no need for faith,” says the professor, in response to Graeber’s questioning of his continued belief in God. “How can anyone believe in God with all that is happening here?” Graeber retorts. “God is not responsible to us; we are responsible to God for all that is happening here.” It is a time for submission and a time for responsibility, too.
With only a day remaining before he must return to his fellow Nazis at the Russian front, Graeber arrives at the big question. Yes, he has found love and knows that Elizabeth will be waiting for him when he returns after the war or at his next furlough, but is he strong enough to stand up to Hitler and the Third Reich in his own way? With this third-act question in mind, repeated viewings of A Time to Love and a Time to Die become more rewarding. Pairing the film with Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life (2019), which depicts the true story of a Nazi soldier who became a conscientious objector because of his religious convictions, one can see two very different dramatic approaches to the same moral conflict. Throw in that A Time to Love and a Time to Die was Sirk’s penultimate feature film as the Hollywood studio system neared its end, and that Malick is from the New Hollywood generation of filmmakers that followed in that system’s wake, and yet another area for dialogue between these two works reveals itself.
• • •
A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958 USA 132 mins)
Prod. Co: Universal International Pictures Prod: Robert Arthur Dir: Douglas Sirk Scr: Orin Jannings Phot: Russell Metty Ed: Ted J. Kent Mus: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: John Gavin, Liselotte Pulver, Jock Mahoney, Don DeFore, Keenan Wynn, Erich Maria Remarque