Sunday, 25 March 2012

A time to love and a time to die

 On the Russian-German front in 1944, the German troops are in retreat, ragged and nearly frozen, with only the dead bodies that appear through the melting snow to signify that winter is almost over. After soldiers Ernst Graeber, bloodthirsty Steinbrenner and young Hirschland are ordered to execute Russian civilians accused of being guerrillas, Hirschland grows despondent and commits suicide. Moments later, Ernst learns that he has been awarded his first furlough in two years and heads home, only to discover that his beloved village has been destroyed by bombs and that his parents are among the missing. Desperate to find them, he visits his mother’s physician, Dr. Kruse, but finds only the doctor's daughter Elizabeth, who informs him that her father has been captured by the Gestapo. When an air raid siren rings out, Elizabeth at first refuses to go to the shelter, explaining that this is one small way she retains her personal freedom, but Ernst convinces her to join him. In the shelter, Ernst learns that many of his neighbors have died and that those that remain are crippled by grief. Later, Ernst offers Elizabeth his Army rations, but she assumes he wants to buy her companionship, and spurns him. He spends the rest of the day searching for his parents, to no avail, but meets Herman Boettcher, who is looking for his beloved two-hundred-pound wife. Boettcher invites Ernst to stay with him in the infirmary, where Reuter, a soldier suffering from gout, advises Ernst to live as if his three-week leave were the last weeks of his life. The next day, Ernst runs into old school friend Oscar Binding, now an important Nazi official with a luxurious home. After treating Ernst to fine food and wine and promising to help look for his parents, Binding brags that he imprisoned Pohlmann, a professor of theirs who gave him failing grades. Later, Ernst finds a note from Elizabeth on the community message board among the ruins, and goes to meet her. She apologizes for mistrusting him, and they manage to enjoy the day together, especially when they find a tree in bloom. By nighttime, they kiss, and later when Ernst asks Reuter where he should take Elizabeth, the officer finds him a clean uniform and reveals the secret password to gain entrance to the illicit nightclub in town. The club is gloriously decadent, and Elizabeth glows from happiness and champagne, until another air raid siren sounds. They rush to the shelter, which is quickly hit by bombs, forcing the well-dressed crowds to flee into the streets. At Elizabeth’s apartment, they see concentration camp inmates working in the street, but Dr. Kruse is not among them. Ernst proposes, but when he mentions his Army pay and death benefits, Elizabeth becomes upset. They fight briefly, then fall into each other's arms. The next day, as Reuter helps Ernst prepare for his wedding, Boettcher announces bitterly that although he has found his wife, she has lost one hundred pounds and no longer seems herself. At the registrar’s office, Ernst grows concerned that Elizabeth will be in danger if she identifies herself as Dr. Kruse’s daughter, and arranges to signal her if there is a problem. When the official agrees to the marriage, in his joy Ernst mistakenly signals to Elizabeth, who flees the building. Soon, however, the confusion is cleared up, and they are married. As they enjoy the wedding feast Binding has sent, Elizabeth mourns that, as a German, she will no longer be welcome in most of Europe. The next day, Ernst receives a package that his mother mailed to the front, and realizes that since she sent it after the evacuation, she is probably still alive. Soon after, however, he intercepts a note from the Gestapo demanding that Elizabeth meet with them. Afraid for her life, he searches for Prof. Pohlmann, who is rumored to be in hiding in the bombed-out museum. There, another bombing interrupts their conversation, and although Ernst fears that Elizabeth has been killed, they finally find each other in the street. They sleep in the museum, where Pohlmann introduces Ernst to Joseph, a Jew in hiding who agrees to help Elizabeth escape, if necessary. Shocked by Pohlmann’s continued belief in God and Joseph’s conscious decision not to despise all Germans, Ernst questions his own responsibility for the horrors of the war. The next day, he visits Binding to ask for help with the Gestapo, but there finds Heini, a concentration camp officer who brags drunkenly about his sadistic tortures. Disgusted, Ernst leaves without asking for help, and goes to the Gestapo in Elizabeth’s place. He discovers she has been called to collect the ashes of her murdered father, and that night, in the lovely, intact home Elizabeth has found for them, Ernst comforts her. After a bittersweet night, he returns to the front, where he finds the tattered remains of his company. Ernst is ordered to guard Russian civilians, but when the company has to move on, Steinbrenner prepares to kill them. Tired of the senseless bloodshed, Ernst shoots Steinbrenner and frees the prisoners. One of them, however, picks up Steinbrenner’s gun and shoots Ernst, who dies just as he is reading a letter from Elizabeth, in which she reveals that she is having their child. 

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