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  • Cinema as Refuge:Frank Borzage and the Mystical Tradition
  • Alan J. Bilton

Despite its title, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) casts a long shadow over the final years of silent film. Its non-naturalistic lighting, mobile ‘unchained’ camera-work, and use of distorted, self-consciously artificial sets, can be seen as a direct influence on Hollywood-based directors as diverse as King Vidor and Josef Von Sternberg (not to mention anticipating film-noir and the Universal Horror cycle), its marriage of American melodrama and German expressionism providing silent film with its own cinematic Weltzerfall, the twilight of the age.

Sunrise’s most striking double, however, is unquestionably Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven (1927), with whom it shares Murnau’s leading lady (Janet Gaynor), studio (Fox), and even the production lot, the two films shot virtually simultaneously, with Gaynor flitting back and forth between sets1. This “historical and metonymic proximity”, as Lucy Fischer puts it, has often led critics to read the two films as complementary inversions of the same themes, one a European vision of America, the other an American dream of Europe, the two films linked in terms of an oneiric working out of the artistic possibilities of melodrama2. Although 7th Heaven is undoubtedly Borzage’s best known silent film, his subsequent work, Street Angel (1928) is, if anything, even more heavily indebted to Sunrise, Borzage figuring an indeterminate, fog-bound Naples as the same kind of extra-territorial, limnal space seen in Sunrise’s unnamed ‘City’. There are other noteworthy parallels: both plots pivot on a moment of attempted murder followed by a scene of intense emotional reconciliation and forgiveness, and both frame the city as alternatively a place of sanctuary and danger.

But does 7th Heaven rise to the challenge of Murnau’s masterpiece? For Fischer, Borzage’s film is little more than a bloodless shadow of Murnau’s: a “conventional genre product”, whose sentimental and moralistic treatment of “female victim-hood” lacks the “modernist, visual excess” of Murnau’s “song of two humans”. In this reading, Borzage’s conservative religiosity is reflected not merely in terms of the film’s plotting, but also in his use of “fairly standard camera positions and movements” and “established mise en scène”, the film a wholesome, romanticised and commercial reworking of Sunrise’s more ambivalent and demanding material3. But what if we approach Borzage’s film from outside traditional (and in some sense “Hollywood”) aesthetics? We can see the achievement of 7th Heaven and Street Angel more clearly, I think, through the prism of religious visionary experience, explaining their strangeness, beauty, and narrative waywardness in terms of a cinematic haven or sanctuary—what S. Brent Plate, in Religion and Film (2008), terms a “sacred canopy”— situating Borzage inside the contemporary scholarly debate on religion and film, and issues of materiality and absence4. This article thus draws on film writing of the period, the metaphysical tradition in art history, and on more recent theoretical treatments of “the structural parallel between cinema going and religious rituals” to argue that Borzage’s work has less in common with classical Hollywood melodrama than with what Melanie J. Wright terms “the religion-film interface”: “ritualistic” activities linked to the “attempt to bring people as close to the ineffable, invisible, and unknowable as words, images, and ideas can take us”.5

Film as Portal

The film writing of Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966) offers a ready window through which to approach Borzage. At first sight, of course, Kracauer’s stress on the presence of physical reality appears profoundly at odds with Borzage’s metaphysical space. As an American film, Murnau’s Sunrise was excluded from Kracauer’s magisterial survey of German Cinema, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947), but Kracauer is also sensitive to the effects of Murnau’s art. Rather strikingly, for example, Kracauer comments on how Murnau’s work is “surrounded by a halo of dreams” in which “a tangible person might suddenly impress the audience as a mere apparition”.6 Ironically, such phrases denote condemnation, not praise. Kracauer attacks Murnau for his “obselete theatrical poses”, the “falsity of the...


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pp. 33-42
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