September 2019, arsenal cinema

"Souls made great by love and adversity" – Frank Borzage retrospective

THE RIVER, 1929

Frank Borzage (1894–1962) was described as a “poet of the working class” and an “uncompromising romanticist”. His films focus on romantic love in all its guises and the complexity of human emotions. Depending on the storyline, the spiritual power of love transcends time, space and in some cases even death, creating its own space, in which the laws of physics are suspended. Despite being one of the greatest and most productive classic Hollywood filmmakers, who made films with the biggest stars of his time, Franz Borzage is largely unknown today. He started producing his own films from 1923 onwards and was thus one of the few Hollywood directors to have almost complete control over his films, working for over four decades, from the early era of cinema to the beginning of the decline of the studio system. Borzage started out as an actor and then made over 100 films between 1915 and 1959, which are not all available today, in particular the silent movies. Our retrospective features 20 films made between 1917 and 1948 as well as several film introductions. The silent films will all be accompanied by pianists.

The observation of intimate moments is without a doubt Borzage’s major strength and the complexity of his character depiction and mise-en-scène are without compare. Essentially, he talks about the transformation of people through love. His films, which are atmospherically rich and dense, develop a realm of sensations. The affectionate gaze and the narrative’s lyrical flow combine to create a vivid visual language. Borzage’s subtle and detailed direction of actors make inner struggles and feelings of hesitation more understandable. His films are full of close-ups of animated faces, of looks, gestures and contacts; by means of the actors whom Borzage wraps in a cocoon of intimacy. Despite the fairy-tale-esque nature of many of Borzage’s films, social and economic conflicts are depicted in a realistic and precise manner. The works feature outsiders and the poor, take place during the Depression, talk about unemployment, exploitation and political chaos. These can all be overcome thanks to the affection that the protagonists have for each other, the characters mature together and grow because of their contact and - often - confrontation with their lovers. Anyone who opens their heart can be delivered; over and over, this is the unwavering message of Borzage’s films, in which the heroes and heroines are mistakenly trapped and caught up in their self-involvement, all of them united by the desire to break out of their confines. They acquire the necessary strength to do this from the relationship - the couple offers a zone of protection against the world’s adversities. The architecture of the films, for example the attic room in 7TH HEAVEN, which brings the lovers to other spheres, provides an appropriate visual match.

THE MORTAL STORM (USA 1940, 1.9., with an introductory lecture by Lukas Foerster & 26.9.) Munich, January 1933: A harmonious family meal to celebrate the 60th birthday of university professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) is interrupted by the announcement that Adolf Hitler has been appointed chancellor. While Roth’s step-sons and the lover of his daughter Freya (Margaret Sullavan) react enthusiastically to the news, the “non-Aryan” professor, his daughter and her admirer, the veterinary student Martin (James Stewart), are shocked. THE MORTAL STORM was the first Hollywood film to openly indict the racism of the Nazi regime and triggered - one and a half years before the US entered the war - a ban of all US films in Germany and occupied Europe. Borzage’s mise-en-scene was restrained. Even though a concentration camp was shown for the first time, there were no sadistic scenes and no ostentatious caricatures of monsters. The horror lay not in what was shown. Instead, Borzage, using the microcosm of a family as a basis, depicted the atmosphere very precisely and showed with great sensitivity how people started interacting differently in the first year of the Nazi dictatorship, how humanity was lost, and the social climate increasingly threatened and shaped by the pressure to adapt, ostracism and aggression.

MAN’S CASTLE (USA 1933, 2. & 13.9.) A shantytown in New York during the Great Depression is an improbable spot for such a wonderful love story: Trina (Loretta Young) and Bill (Spencer Tracy) meet in a park. Bill feeds the pigeons and this drives Trina, who hasn’t eaten for days, to despair. He takes her with him to an improvised shantytown that has become almost a place of utopia for outcasts and the poor. “When people have nothing, they act like human beings.” However, there is no fast happy ending because the relationship is ambiguous. Trina pragmatically creates a cozy home in the tiny shack, with curtains, a tablecloth and a stove, while Bill, with his coarse manner, is reluctant to settle down. He’s caught between love and a feeling of responsibility on the one hand and a need to escape on the other.

DESIRE (USA 1936, 3. & 19.9.) The elegant jewel thief Madeleine de Beaupre (Marlene Dietrich) steals a pearl necklace in Paris. It’s worth two million francs and she intends to bring it to her accomplice in San Sebastián. To smuggle it over the border, she slides it into the jacket pocket of the unsuspecting holiday-maker Tom Bradley (Gary Cooper), who helps her when her car breaks down. Marlene Dietrich’s first film after splitting up with Josef von Sternberg and the second with Gary Cooper after Morocco (1930) is the successful synthesis of a sarcastic crime caper by Ernst Lubitsch, who worked on the screenplay development and was the artistic director, and a romantic love story directed by Frank Borzage with his own particular tenderness.

7TH HEAVEN (USA 1927, 4.9.) was a first highlight in Borzage’s oeuvre. It was filmed in an imaginary studio Paris where Borzage, with his characteristic tender sensitivity, shed light on his central theme in all its glory: love’s power to transcend reality. Chico (Charles Farrell), who works in the city’s sewers, and Diane (Janet Gaynor) who has been cast out by her family meet on the street. Chico rescues her out of sympathy. Their striving for something better finds its match in Chico’s room under the roofs where they create a place of dreams. Even the war cannot get at them. Chico joins up but their spiritual bond is maintained.

A FAREWELL TO ARMS (USA 1932, 5. & 21.9.) This is perhaps Frank Borzage’s most famous talkie. It was freely adapted from Ernest Hemingway’s eponymous novel about a great love affair against the backdrop of war, inspired by the writer’s own experiences. It is 1917 and US lieutenant Fred Henry (Gary Cooper) is serving on the Italian-Austrian front as a paramedic when he falls in love with the British Red Cross sister Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes), thus entering a rivalrous relationship with his friend Major Rinaldi (Adolphe Meniou). After a military chaplain marries Henry and Barkley against orders, there is injury, separation, desertion and a trip to Switzerland. Then the director guides the film towards an inimitable Borzage-ending that gives the impression that love can transcend death - the ending did not please Hemingway, who rejected Borzage’s emphasis and distanced himself from the Oscar-winning film.

LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? (USA 1934, 6.9.) At the center of this adaptation of Hans Fallada’s novel is a lower middle-class gentle and unpolitical couple, Hans (Douglass Montgomery) and Lämmchen (Margaret Sullavan) that tries to maintain its dignity in a world full of doubt and insecurity. Threatened by unemployment, a housing shortage, humiliations and political propaganda, they struggle for themselves and their family. In their interaction with the world, the completely self-involved couple experiences uncertainty; Hans seems about to give in to despair but Lämmchen who is stronger finds an affirmation of life in pregnancy: “We created life, so why should we be afraid of it?” The rise of fascism is seen as a threat to their private happiness and their personal integrity. Whereas an older couple that turns up over and over again finds direction in political solutions, Borzage seeks hope in the gestures of affection and in the deep bonds between those who love each other.

THREE COMRADES (USA 1938, 6. & 21.9.) After LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? Borzage turned once again to the troubles and emotional needs of the Weimar Republic, inspired by Erich Maria Remarque’s eponymous novel. F. Scott Fitzgerald adapted the novel into a screenplay. The three friends Erich, Otto and Gottfried return from the war disillusioned and without prospects. They are slowly trying to build up new lives when they meet Pat (Margaret Sullivan), who is also homeless. Erich falls in love with her and the possibility of healing the emotional wounds of all involved emerges. In the midst of the chaos that surrounds them, they are able to create an ideal world in which lovers cannot be separated, even by death.

THE RIVER (USA 1929, 7.9., on piano: Eunice Martins) Set on the banks of a river, this is the story of the outdoorman Allen John’s (Charles Farrell) initiation to love by the mysterious and seductive urban Rosalee (Mary Duncan) whose lover is in jail for murder. Hervé Dumont said it was “the most erotic film of the silent cinema”. It was banned in several US states and its distribution was limited after mutual agreement. Many newspapers refused to report on the film and boycotted the publicity. Now it exists in fragmented form only and though it includes stills as well as inter-titles, it is only 55 minutes long instead of the original 84. However, it remains one of Borzage’s most important films and “one of the unknown summits of the silent cinema” (Hervé Dumont).

HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT (USA 1937, 7. & 23.9.) For the film critic Andrew Sarris, this was the most romantic title in the history of cinema. Romance sets in immediately when Irene (Jean Arthur), who intends to split up from her rich and insanely jealous husband Bruce, meets the elegant waiter Paul (Charles Boyer) who is able to free her from her predicament. After a magical night at a classy restaurant with champagne and music, only the unscrupulous Bruce and his intrigues stand between the two lovers. Based on a screenplay that was altered during the shoot, the film alternates between melodrama and romantic comedy with a plot that is not very interested in probability but celebrates love in such an unrestrained manner that even an iceberg can’t prevent it.

MANNEQUIN (USA 1938, 8. & 13.9., with an introduction by Esther Buss) Jessie (Joan Crawford) comes from a modest background. After an arduous day at the factory she returns to her domestic duties in the parental home. The cramped living conditions on New York’s Lower East Side, general resignation and the oppressive lack of kindness leave little space for her own desires and longings. She attempts to escape by marrying her boyfriend Eddie, but he soon turns out to be a disappointment and tries to persuade her to commit fraud. At the same time, the rich Hennessy (Spencer Tracy) falls for her, touched by her sense of romance and her beauty. She is able to maintain her freedom and integrity and reverses the conditions in which men are considered strong and women weak.

STRANGE CARGO (USA 1940, 9. & 28.9.) The eighth and last cooperation between the dream couple Joan Crawford and Clark Gable depicts the dramatic escape of the cynical Verne (Gable), the prostitute Julie (Crawford), the spy “M’sieu Pig” (Peter Lorre) and five others from a penal colony in French Guiana. Guided by the murderer Moll (Albert Dekker) the fugitives cross swamps and the jungle to arrive at the sea. The secretive Cambreau (Ian Hunter) rescues the group over and over from seemingly impossible situations, leading the way from the jungle and to him. “A pivotal film in Frank Borzage's career, Strange Cargo (1940) finds the director moving beyond his concern with the spiritual qualities of human relationships to a broader, more mystical vision of a transcendent harmony between man and nature.” (Dave Kehr) Because of the character of Cambreau and the depiction of sexuality, the film was denounced by the Catholic Legion of Decency and banned in many major US cities.

LILIOM (USA 1930, 10. & 22.9.) In an artificial and fairy-tale-esque Budapest, the cocky Liliom is the hero of the fun fair carousel. Julie, a maid who has long been in love with him from a distance, leaves her previous life behind when he finally takes notice of her. She rejects the advances of the carpenter who offers her stability and security to devote herself to Liliom. He, however, returns her love with reluctance and coarseness. Despite his incapacity to love, she loves him to the point of self-sacrifice. The hypnotic turning of the carousel is not only symbolic of the love that envelops Julie but also of Liliom’s erratic nature. Very original in style, the expressionist and consciously artificial sets contribute to an atmosphere of reverie, as does the plot which stretches out into the night world.

HUMORESQUE (USA 1920, 12.9., on piano: Eunice Martins) The Kantors, a Jewish family that fled the pogroms in Russia, live on New York’s ghetto-like Lower East Side. The nine-year-old son devotes all his energy and free time to playing the violin, against the wishes of his father who would like him to become a businessman. HUMORESQUE brought Frank Borzage early fame. It was voted “Best Picture of 1920” by two million readers of the magazine Photoplay and won the Medal of Honor, the first significant annual movie award and the precursor to the Oscars, which were first awarded in 1929. The emotional drama depicts a milieu remarkably graphically and features numerous motifs that would crop up again and again in Borzage’s films: poverty, war, injury, deformity, attention to animals, the power of music, of love and faith. Sergei Eisenstein, who considered Borzage one of the three greatest filmmakers in the US alongside Charlie Chaplin and Erich von Stroheim, described the film as a “rare example of sensibility and expertise.”

LUCKY STAR (USA 1929, 14.9., on piano: Hannes Selig) Borzage’s last silent movie brought the successful pairing Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell together again. The unkempt Mary is the oldest daughter of a poor farmer’s widow. Tim, who detects a sensitive soul behind her coarse facade, courts her after his return from World War One, during which his legs were injured. But Mary’s mother wants to marry her off to the crooked Wrenn, who promises her a bright future in the big city. A showdown full of suspense takes place in a fairy-tale-like snow-scape in a parallel montage where love makes the impossible possible.

THE VANISHING VIRGINIAN (USA 1942, 16. & 28.9.) Based on Rebecca Yancey Williams’ memoirs, the film tells the story of the popular lawyer and politician Robert Yancey (Frank Morgan) who was from the small town of Lynchburg in Virginia. This nostalgic chronicle of a family begins in 1913 and ends with an epilogue from 1929. Borzage paints the portrait of a man who likes people and doesn’t differentiate between blacks and whites, without putting him on a hero’s pedestal. THE VANISHING VIRGINIAN is an unspectacular but heartwarming film with a straightforward plot and little suspense. It focuses on daily life, on respectful interaction. The differences of opinion between the Yancey couple and between the parents and their children receive more attention than the pros and cons of Prohibition.

SECRETS (USA 1924, 17.9., on piano: Joachim Bärenz) An elderly woman looks back on her life with her heavily ill husband and recalls when she fell in love. With quiet nuance and with a fine sense of observation, Borzage uses flashbacks to tell the story of young Lady Mary who crosses social boundaries when she falls for her father’s employee and chooses to leave her family for him. She tells her children, who do not understand her sense of sacrifice, the secret of love that should be preserved like a treasure and for this to be possible social conventions have to be flouted and adversities and a variety of inner and external tests have to be overcome. A dramaturgical highlight full of refinement and wit is the long scene when Lady Mary puts on an elaborate ball gown, a scene that is abruptly ended when the father discovers a letter written by John. The removal of the dress is no less tricky and accompanied by numerous interruptions. Borzage made a sound remake in 1933, but it is without compare to the original in terms of lightness and charm.

UNTIL THEY GET ME (USA 1917, 20.9., on piano: Eunice Martins) 7th September 1885,  Alberta, Canada: Kirby, a farmer, arrives back too late at his ranch where his wife has just died in childbirth. He is too late because he has just shot a troublemaker in self-defense during an argument. The mounted policeman Selwyn is hot on his tail. With the help of a 16-year-old, he is able to escape but not before promising the native servant that he will return to the ranch each year on his child’s birthday. An unusual, poetic and sensual Western with an independent female character that makes it one of the outstanding examples of the genre from the 1910s and features all of Borzage’s themes: “Instead of illustrating the struggle between Good and Evil by use of cavalcades and fusillades Borzage concentrates his stories on the blooming and the maturing of a sentiment, refusing to pass judgement, developing the characterization by virtue of directing the actors in a manner at once natural, but sensitive and of an astonishing modernity.” (Hervé Dumont)

MOONRISE (USA 1948, 20.9., with an introduction by Hannes Brühwiler & 30.9.) Borzage’s last great success was a dark melodrama, a small-town saga full of horror and beauty. Even as an adult, Danny is pursued by the image of his criminal father on the gallows. In the heat of the moment, he kills the man who used to bully him as a child. A fugitive from the police, he seeks intimacy with others who show understanding for his tortured soul and he finally manages to escape the vicious circle of violence and loneliness. The suggestive shots of the night and foggy swamp landscape, which is a place of refuge for Danny, the hard contrasts and the bodies and faces on the edge of the picture reflect his state of mind. The rising sun at the end brings a shimmer of hope.

I’VE ALWAYS LOVED YOU (USA 1946, 24.9., Introduction: Stephan Ahrens & 29.9.) In 1925, the maestro Leopold Goronoff (Philip Dorn) discovers the talent of the young pianist Myra Hassman (Catherine McLeod), the daughter of an old friend called Frederick (Felix Bressart) and takes her from Philadelphia to Carnegie Hall and on to the capitals of Europe. Myra is caught between the love of her teacher, who becomes increasingly abrasive towards her the better she plays, and of her childhood friend George who waits for her loyally on his farm back home: “I’ve always loved her.” Apart from the omnipresent love, in this costly mini-major Republic Pictures production, the opulent and colorful sets shot in three strip Technicolor and the music - more precisely Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 - play a key role. The 14-minute solo concert scene was played by Arthur Rubinstein, who instructed actors during the playbacks.

STREET ANGEL (USA 1928, 27.9.) “Souls made great by love and adversity” is one of the inter-titles of this film and it could be applied to all of Borzage’s protagonists. After the sensational success of 7TH HEAVEN, once again the focus was on the couple Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. The setting here is Naples, which alternates between dark and foggy and cheerfully romantic. Angela is forced by the circumstances into becoming a thief. Her attempt to prostitute herself is a failure. Chased by the police, she finds refuge in a street circus where she meets the painter Gino. He paints a portrait of her that shakes her to the core - never has anyone captured her essence thus - and gives her strength to cling onto love, despite all the adversities and even when she is jailed. Inspired by Expressionism, the film’s visual language uses long takes and geometrical street scenes to evoke the emotional state of its protagonists. The film was shot in the transition from silent movies to talkies. It has both inter-titles and a soundtrack, which features music and sound effects but no dialogues. (hjf/al)

The retrospective was made possible thanks to support from the Capital Cultural Fund.

German subtitles: Mikesch Rohmer