7th Heaven

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 29, 2015

You know that dumb thing people say—I know I’ve said it—about how if someone doesn’t like or do or subscribe to some certain thing, then there’s something wrong with them? Well, I’m afraid that that dumb thing people say might actually be true in the case of this late silent film milestone. But it’s true in a very particular sense, which applies to a lot or most of the films that Frank Borzage went on to direct, subsequently. And since Borzage directed so many films, and since they frequently touch upon such fundamental and important themes, then I guess occasionally that callow charge is not so dumb after all.

Here’s Borzage, putting it completely together for the first time. He’s found his subject, his attitude toward it, and in a way that hasn’t been true of so very many filmmakers, the stylistic approach that will enable him to put the whole thing over. Sounds great! It is great too, and in a manner most rare and exalted. But you might not find it so easy. Thing is, as a viewer, you’ve got to believe! And if you don’t, or if you won’t, then it’s almost certainly a problem that you really ought to think about.

7th Heaven has, you might say, certain fantastic elements to it. In a really remarkable combination of design and direction and cinematography it creates a very stylized and yet really convincing version of the Parisian demimonde. Make that really, really remarkable: it’s films like this that gave the high silent cinema it’s exalted reputation as a real high water mark in the history of cinema and, indeed, of art. It’s films like this that caused so many people at the time to sincerely mourn its demise, going so far as to call it a tragedy (Rudolf Arnheim, 1933). Get a load of that stairway shot!

The thing about 7th Heaven though is that its camera gymnastics are in the service of something much bigger and deeper. That would be Borzage’s great theme—as mentioned a number of times around these parts—of human souls made great through love and adversity. There’s nothing fantastic about the adversity. It very much relates to WWI being less than a decade gone, which is to say still quite agonizingly present. That part of the picture is somewhat familiar, and it’s very sympathetically and productively explored here.

But it’s in the love and the being made great that something really special comes into play, something strange and wonderful and, for many, awfully off-putting. We might believe in love between a man and a woman, and the possibility that that love can be long-lasting, evolving, even exalting. We might also believe in the promise of life after death. We might even hold out the hope that these two things might someday, somehow be combined. But in so hoping are we not most frequently like the desperate father of that afflicted child? “Lord, I believe,” we say. “Help thou my unbelief!” 7th Heaven is utterly assured, utterly convicted, and most confident in expressing those two things. You real, you true Romantics don’t need any of my urging here, but will already have found in Borzage your most articulate advocate.

The rest of you? I’m sympathetic. But there might be something wrong with you …