“A Time to Love and a Time to Die” is based on Erich Remarque’s novel. It is sometimes referred to as “All Quiet on the Eastern Front” although it is set in the second world war and bears little resemblance to the classic. Remarque co-wrote the film and acts in it. It was directed by Douglas Sirk (“Battle Hymn”). It was filmed in West Germany. Because of its sympathetic portrayal of German soldiers, the movie was banned in Israel and the Soviet Union.
The film opens with a German unit retreating on the Eastern Front. They billet in a vacant village where they uncover the frozen body of a comrade. The men are exhausted and most are bitter and cynical. The exception is a hard-core Nazi named Steinbrenner. Every unit has one. Some of the men are ordered to execute some civilians who have been determined to be “guerrillas”. One of the men (a young Timothy Hutton) takes his own life because of this.
Ernst Graeber (John Gavin) is given a furlough after two years at the front. He returns home to find no home and no parents. When he tells an old man that he has come from the front, the old man responds: “This is the front.” Graeber meets Elizabeth (Liselotte Pulver) and the relationship starts like every movie romance – rocky. While searching for his parents, Graeber meets an old classmate who is now a Nazi official. Binding (Thayer David) lives like prince in his mansion decorated with stolen art. He is very chummy with Graeber, however.
Ernst and Elizabeth dine in a fancy restaurant where the rich are unaffected by the war. Until an air raid blows up the restaurant. Air raids are a recurring theme of the movie. If the actors did not speak German, you might think you wandered into a movie set in the Blitz. Ernst and Elizabeth get married and even the bombing of her apartment can’t dampen their love. What does put a damper on things is the fact that the Gestapo is searching for Elizabeth. Her father had been shipped off to a concentration camp for criticizing the war. Maybe Binding can help, plus this gives the plot the chance to introduce a loathsome Nazi (Klaus Kinski, probably not acting) who enjoys his work in the concentration camp. These air raids are getting dangerous, lucky thing Graeber has to return to the front. His respite from executing civilians is about to end.
“A Time to Love and a Time to Die” is largely forgotten today because it is forgettable. Most people don’t know there is another war movie based on a Remarque novel. I have not read the book, but I would hazard that the book is as inferior to All Quiet… as the movie is to the movie. It was impossible for Remarque to replicate the brilliance of his earlier novel and it is commendable that he did not try. The movie is more of a romance than a war movie. There is no combat and little of the soldier interaction that the first is noted for. In exchange, we get a lame romance with lame dialogue. It does not help that there is no chemistry between the leads. Pulver plays Elizabeth as a bubbly, Bohemian in spite of her father’s fate. Gavin is just a bad actor. He is his usual wooden self. (He is better than Lew Ayres, I must admit.) The rest of the cast is not bad and Remarque (who plays a dissenting German teacher) is surprisingly good. Acting honors go to Keenan Wynn who brings some needed levity as one of Graeber’s friends. The movie strangely lacks suspense. It does set up potentially interesting scenarios like the search for the parents and the Gestapo wanting to locate Elizabeth, but then does not pay off. It also has a perplexing case of villain interruptus.
With all that said, the movie was better than I expected. I had never seen it and had no desire to see it, so I assumed it was a dog. While not being a gem, it’s worth a watch if you are determined to see every decent war movie or you want to know the basic plot of another Remarque novel. Or see a famous novelist playing in a movie based on his novel. Or you are a big John Gavin fan. Ronald Reagan probably watched the movie several times.
GRADE = C+