Before Douglas Sirk, there was Frank Borzage (1894-1962), an unabashed romantic and sentimentalist whose most beautiful achievement, 7th Heaven, is a fine counterpoint to the Festival’s other silent film Ingeborg Holm, one that deals with its emotional storm with restraint. In Borzage’s story, Chico (Charles Farrell), working as a cleaner in the Paris sewers, rescues the distressed Diane (Janet Gaynor) into his modest attic apartment. The impending war strikes a wedge in the young people’s love, the power of which, however, ultimately overcomes all earthly obstacles.
It is easy to accuse this tearjerker, thoroughly marinated in Hollywood idealism and atmospheric backdrops, as an uninhibited collection of clichés. But melodrama was for Borzage purely a matter of faith and not the “shameless sentimentality for midinettes” often labelled vulgar by critics. To quote John Belton, his heroes “achieve spiritual gain only through physical loss” and “the powers of the spirit subvert physical reality” (Sakari Toiviainen). When Chico is sent to the front, the lovers agree to be in contact (by the power of thought) every day at 11.00 a.m. sharp. This transcendental, almost supernatural communication approaching telepathy is reminiscent of a similar reverie between a separated couple in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) a few years later. It carries Borzage’s story in the direction of a ghost story – cf. Ghost (1990), the hit of less poetic times!
The “moral universe” balancing between the director’s chastity and passion is a kind of sleight of hand in which the dichotomies – man and woman, war and peace, heaven and earth, spirit and body, the stinking Hell of the sewer and the spacious Heaven of the attic -– cancel each other out. A spiral staircase separates the extremes, and 7th Heaven, laced with ethereal beams of light, is a thoroughly vertical, breath-taking film. The purity of sensuality reflects a total ignorance of the state of sin, and Toiviainen goes on to say how “in Borzage’s world, spirit trumps letter, symbol trumps reality. – – The heart knows better than the reason: perhaps this is the essence of Borzage’s melodrama.”
The Festival’s Saturday silent film screening will be accompanied by the Seitsemäs Taivas ensemble comprising Lau Nau, Topias Tiheäsalo, and Hermanni Yli-Tepsa. Moreover, veterans of the 2015 Midnight Sun Film Festival may also recall that year’s silent Borzage film Lucky Star (1929), buoyed up by the same Gaynor/Farrell star duo.
Borzage’s tender, life-embracing touch is guaranteed to leave no heart cold. To trust, to believe, to dream, to love… These are some of the keys to humanity from our American friend of less than a century ago. Even the dying director’s last words to his wife echoed the same worldview that made dreams come true: “Nita, we have found our own 7th Heaven.”