A Time to Love and a Time to Die: Masters of Cinema Review

The following is a revised and updated version of my 2009 review of Masters of Cinema's two-disc DVD of A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

1944. Private Ernst Graeber (John Gavin) is posted on the Russian Front. Morale is low, the soldiers worn down by hardship. Then Ernst is given a long-awaited furlough. He returns to Germany to find his house bombed and his parents missing. Then he meets Elizabeth Kruse (Lilo Pulver), a childhood friend. They fall in love, but know that soon Ernst must return to the front...

Douglas Sirk's fame and critical reputation rests mainly on the “women's pictures” and melodramas he made under contract to Universal in the 1950s. Of course, his career – originally in Germany and then as a freelance in America – was much longer than that: the IMDB lists forty-seven directing credits between 1934 and 1979. Prolific too: his Universal period ran from 1951 to 1958 and covered twenty-one of those titles (one uncredited). And versatile: he often worked in other genres, including film noir, a western (in 3D), and a historical epic. So a war film, which is what A Time to Love and a Time to Die is (plus a romance), should come as no surprise.

A Time to Love (which was originally the entire title) was his penultimate film for Universal, and is based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, best known as the author of All Quiet on the Western Front. Remarque also appears in the film as an actor, playing Professor Pohlmann. His novel had, significantly, a slightly different title – for Love read Live. But in Sirk's film it's Love, and it's the love story between Ernst and Elizabeth which drives the story, rather than conventional war-movie heroics. But it's a love that is brought about by the war: it's the knowledge that Ernst will have to return to the front, and quite possibly not come back, which gives the love its bittersweet intensity.

The film was made on location in Germany, with Sirk's favoured DP Russell Metty shooting in CinemaScope. Compared to, for example, All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, for example, at first sight A Time to Love... seems less stylised in its look. . Maybe it's the use of Eastman Colour stock rather than Technicolor, or the use of real locations rather than the studio sets and backlots of those two, which were shot in “flat” widescreen instead of Scope. This film doesn't avoid a certain glossiness in its presentation: but then stomach-churning realism was not on the agenda (for reasons of censorship amongst other things). That doesn't preclude a hard edge to this film: romantic it may be, soft-headed no. The final image is reminiscent of that in All Quiet on the Western Front and just as powerful. Russell Metty's cinematography is masterly, and Miklos Rozsa's music score makes a major contribution. Its only Oscar nomination however was for its soundtrack. Compared to Sirk's other American films of the 1950s (which, apart from the above two, include The Tarnished Angels, Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life) A Time to Love and a Time to Die tends to be a little overlooked, but unfairly so. It's certainly a worthy addition to the Masters of Cinema catalogue.

The Blu-ray

A Time to Love and a Time to Die was originally released by Eureka in their Masters of Cinema series as a two-disc DVD edition in 2009. It now gets an upgrade to Blu-ray on a single BD50 disc.

The transfer is in the original ratio of 2.35:1. In 2009, I thought the DVD transfer was first-rate, which it was, but this Blu-ray is better still, with the colours strong, skintones natural and grain natural and filmlike, and shadow detail excellent. The Blu-ray transfer is a little brighter than the DVD's, as can be seen in the following screengrabs, the DVD first and then the Blu-ray.

The soundtrack is presented in LPCM mono. The Blu-ray loses the French-dubbed track which was on the DVD but replaces it with an isolated music and effects track, also in LPCM mono. There's nothing to complain about here: dialogue and sound effects and Miklos Rozsa's score are clear and balanced with all the expertise a Hollywood sound department could bring. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing, and in some ways exceed their remit by translating some Russian dialogue which goes untranslated when they're not switched on.

The extras begin with “Of Tears and Speed: According to Jean-Luc Godard” (12:29). This is a video piece by Nicolas Ripoche, made in 2007, which illustrates Godard's 1959 review of the film from Cahiers du cinéma. The extracts from A Time to Love... are properly letterboxed, but have yellow French subtitles.

In “Out There in the Dark” (18:40), American screenwriter Wesley Strick talks about his love of Sirk's work. This resulted in Out There in the Dark, a 2006 novel based on Sirk's experiences as he left Germany and went to Hollywood.

“Imitation of Life: A Portrait of Douglas Sirk” (50:57) was made in 1984, three years before Sirk's death. In it, Sirk is interviewed about his life and films. This being a French production, the film extracts are subtitled into that language. Sirk speaks in German: mostly he is subtitled into French and then (for this DVD) into English. At other times a French voiceover is provided, which is then subtitled into English. There's a lot in a small compass: particularly intriguing are clips from Sirk's German films which I suspect are not the easiest to see nowadays. Another thing that emerges from this documentary is how much Sirk owed to his wife Hilde, a strong collaborator and support behind the scenes and at least once on screen as well.

Finally, there is the theatrical trailer (2:45) which is in non-anamorphic 1.85:1. This calls the film A Time to Love and is softer and with a palette shifted much further over to red than the feature is.

As always with Masters of Cinema, there is a booklet included with the Blu-ray. This was not made available for this review, but the following was what I said about the DVD booklet. If there are any changes, I will update this review once I am aware of them. The booklet contains the full text of the Godard review mentioned above, with a slightly modified translation. Also included are extracts from Tag Gallagher's essay “White Melodrama: Douglas Sirk”, a “scrapbook” of information about the film and the text of Goethe's poem “Selige Sehnsucht” (both in the original German and also in English translation as “Blissful Longing”, plus film and DVD credits.

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