Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Tragedy of War Meets the Tragedy of Love in Douglas Sirk's Melodramatic War Film, A Time to Love and A Time to Die

In the annals of film history, the name Douglas Sirk will go down as the man who raised the melodrama to new artistic heights in 1950's Hollywood.  This of course is a perfectly reasonable epitaph to give the great auteur, for he did just that in films such as All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind and Magnificent Obsession, but it still sells the quite versatile director way too short.

Born Hans Detlef Sierck in Hamburg, Germany, the director would make a name for himself in 1930's German cinema before leaving in 1937 due to his political leanings and Jewish wife, and ending up in Hollywood USA with a brand new name and career.  His first film in his adopted land was the decidedly anti-Nazi propaganda film Hitler's Madman, made for PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation) but released by MGM in 1943.  This work may not have the cinematic flair and melodramatic style that would come to identify a Douglas Sirk production in later years, but in its emotional bravura and use of conspicuous archetypes, it does have touches of the Sirkian method throughout.  But it is a film Sirk would make in the following decade, in the midst of his Melodrama career highpoint, that would give the most realistic, yet with a stridently melodramatic style of course, look at the horrors that had happened to his homeland in the terrible years of World War II.  This film would be A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

Based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, A Time to Love and a Time to Die tells the story of Ernst Graeber, a German private on the Russian front, who is given a three week furlough only to come home and find most of his hometown destroyed by war and his parents missing.  Played by John Gavin (best known as Sam Loomis, Marion Crane's lover in Psycho), Ernst is trapped inside a world gone mad.  From old schoolmates who have become callous Nazis to endless military redtape in his attempts to find his parents to constant air raids and bombings, Ernst finds that life at home is not much better than the insanity he has seen in the heat of the frontlines.  It is all mad as hell and as Ernst goes on and on he is driven further and further into a mindset that not only hates war but also his nation and its leaders for bringing this all upon themselves.  And this is all shown through the bloody gauze of Sirkian melodrama, as the opening credits beautifully dance by as if in a romantic drama, leading almost immediately into a scene where the soldiers find a dead, black hand frozen and reaching out from its snowy grave.

What is most remarkable about this film is how the German people are portrayed not as the monstrosities they are in other films about World War II, but as just simply people.  Sure, we get the psychopaths and party line creatures, as well we should (a young Klaus Kinski has a small part as a particularly sinister Gestapo brute), but we also get the average German citizen, both soldier and civilian, who want nothing more than their lives and the peace and their loved ones back.   We get to see the horrors of war through the eyes of the German people, and these people are shown in the same light as Americans would be shown in contemporary war films - just trying to survive a world gone mad.  To take this particular stance in Hollywood in 1958 (a time when anyone over the age of twenty could still remember the war) was a brave move on Sirk's and Universal International's behalves.  

Similar in its political anti-war message to Kubrick's Paths of Glory, released the year prior, Sirk's film may not have the cinematic intensity of that film (what film does?) nor its bracing, dead-eyed stare that Kubrick does better than anyone else out there, but what he does show, and the way he shows it, gives the film a rabid emotionality that builds, crescendo like, to its inevitable tragic finale.  A finale that you know is sure to come, as tragedies hit this film in nearly every conceivable way and in nearly every scene, but a tragedy that is no less powerful when it finally does come.   Ernst does find love in the midst of this chaos, in the form of fellow refugee Elizabeth (played by German actress Liselotte Pulver, best known in the US as James Cagney's hot-to-trot secretary in the Billy Wilder comedy One, Two, Three), but it is merely a temporary respite from the ravages of war - a war that will eventually destroy nearly everything in its path.

Filmed in CinemaScope, A Time to Love and a Time to Die breathes with much the same audacious palette as Sirk's melodramas do, and its tragic spin is even greater than that of those films.   Godard said of the film, "This, anyhow, is what enchants me about Sirk: this delirious mixture of medieval and modern, sentimentality and subtlety, tame compositions and frenzied CinemaScope."   Though it does have its detractors, Sirk's cinema is indeed a thing that can enchant a person (I came to the director rather late in life - my first taste of Sirk, by way of Magnificent Obsession, came just this past year - and I grow more and more in love with his cinema with each subsequent work I view).  And it enchants not just in its succulent cinematography, the director's sly use of symbolism and censor-baiting innuendo, and his delirious mixture of what M. Godard calls the medieval and the modern, but in the aspect of taking the real and the tragic and making it larger-than-life.  Blowing it up figuratively when he could not do it literally.

A Time to Love and a Time to Die would end up being Sirk's penultimate feature film, as he would drop out of Hollywood after Imitation of Life in 1959, at the very peak of his career, and retire to Switzerland, making just a brief return stint to his native Germany in the mid seventies (just two quite obscure shorts would be the whole of this return).  Sirk would die in Switzerland in 1987.  Now thought of as a true auteur and an influence on many modern filmmakers including Todd Haynes, Quentin Tarantino, Pedro Almodovar, Lars von Trier and Wong Kar-wai, Sirk's cinema, once critically maligned, is a cinematic thing to behold.  A Time to Love and a Time to Die may not be his greatest work (I still prefer the true melodramas) but as far as anti-war films go, it is one of the finest, and bravest, ever made.  It is, as the title of this piece plainly states, where the Sirkian tragedy of war meets the Sirkian tragedy of love.

No comments: