A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Masters of Cinema) Review

A soldier on furlough finds a brief romance in A Time to Love and a Time to Die. Douglas Sirk’s 1958 film is released as a two-disc edition by Masters of Cinema. Review by Gary Couzens.

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 – in Germany and 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… 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. 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. I watched All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind in preparation for this review. Maybe it’s the use of Eastman Colour stock rather than Technicolor, but at first sight A Time to Love… seems less stylised in its look than the other two (which were studio/backlot productions shot in “flat” widescreen). That’s not to say it 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. That’s also not to deny that the film is very well directed: whole books have been written about Sirkian aesthetics and mise-en-scène, which is beyond the scope of this review. The final image is reminiscent of that in All Quiet on the Western Front and just as powerful.

Whether this belongs up there with the two earlier films mentioned above, or with Imitation of Life or The Tarnished Angels or Magnificent Obsession is for the viewer to decide. That it is a very good film is less in question, and that Sirk deserves a place in the ever-impressive Masters of Cinema catalogue is surely not in doubt.


A Time to Love and a Time to Die is number 65 in the Masters of Cinema series. It comprises two DVD-9s encoded for all regions.

The film is transferred to DVD in a ratio of 2.40:1 (measured) and anamorphically enhanced. As this is slightly wider than the 2.35:1 advertised, this begs a question. Early CinemaScope films were 2.55:1 with a four-track magnetic soundtrack. According to the IMDB, this film was released with both a stereo soundtrack and a mono (optical) one. If this has been (slightly) cropped from the full 2.55:1 then perhaps it was (as usual) at screen left – and evidence for this is that the opening “A CinemaScope Production” is not centred but shifted slightly leftwards. I leave this as speculation though: if firm information is forthcoming I will update this review.

What is not in question is the quality of the transfer itself, which is solid, well-coloured and filmlike. Any softness and grain is no doubt due to the filmmaking process. First rate.

There’s no stereo soundtrack – maybe it no longer exists. Instead we have two single-channel mono tracks, the original English and a French dub. 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.

Also on Disc 1 is the original trailer, which runs 2:39 and 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. An unannounced extra on this disc is the shooting script, in PDF format.

Disc 2 has three items. First is “Of Tears and Speed: According to Jean-Luc Godard” (11:58). 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” (48:51) 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).

As ever, there is a substantial booklet included with this DVD. It 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.

Although they have not been active for as long, Masters of Cinema are up there with Criterion and a few other labels in consistently delivering the goods. It’s good to see Sirk on their list: let’s hope there will be more of this director’s work to come.


Updated: Apr 06, 2009

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