Letter from an Unknown Woman

United States, 1948

Directed by Max Ophüls

With Joan Fontaine (Lise Berndle), Louis Jourdan (Stefan Brand), Marcel Journet (Johann Stauffer)

Repeating the same, spectacular composition shot emphasizes the sentimental achievement of the heroine, a dream coming true, the simple fact she is now the chosen. The camera is set on the landing of the last floor of the Vienna posh residential building where most of the film’s scenes take place, stuck against a wall. Taking a slanted, high angle, it capture most of the spiral stairway, up from the huge doors leading to the outside to the landing of the second floor, which leads to the apartment of great pianist Stefan Brand, though the door of this apartment is impossible to see. That means capturing the movement of anyone stepping in the place and going to the pianist’s apartment in full.

Spellbound, barely hoping for the best, and set to get disillusioned: Joan Fontaine (left) and Louis Jourdan

The first time, Lise Berndle was on that last landing, near the camera, which was thus sharing her point of view. She was tired but eager to bid farewell to the distinguished, talented young man who was her next door’s neighbor and unaware that he put a spell on her,. Her love was keen but silent, kept secret by conventions and a timidity coming from her adolescence, her education, and her deepest nature. She might have entertained one day to declare her feelings, she certainly hoped she would stay close to her love forever – but her mother decided to marry a merchant from Linz and to leave Vienna. Lisa Berndle had a terrible time coping with her mother’s decision, and did not resist the urge to run away from the railway station on the fateful evening of their departure to meet the man she loved passionately but never dared to talk with. Stefan Brand eventually arrived, but bantering with an elegant lady, and what the heroine and the camera watched was the rush to the apartment of two carefree and merry persons clearly in love, and yearning for love-making. Lisa Berndle was then forced to acknowledge she would never be loved by the pianist, that another woman would always grab his attention, tug at his heart.

Now, in that second time, the camera is alone, the sole witness of the movement to come. And what it records is the same rush up the stairs of two carefree and merry persons clearly in love, and yearning for love-making, with once again Stefan Brand on the right and his lady on the left – but this time it is Lisa Berndle. Between the two likewise shots, years have passed, Lisa Berndle has become an even more beautiful woman, and still a tranquil character, working as a model in a couture house of Vienna. She keeps loving secretly Stefan Brand, lurking around the building where she used to live and where he still resides, hoping to have a glimpse on him. But that evening, she gets more, as the pianist notices her, gets charmed, and takes her on an enchanting tour around the Austrian capital, climaxing with the fun provided by a fair in the Prater park. This is delicate and delightful series of vignettes, away from the realism of the film’s first part, the tender observation of romantic seduction looking like a fairy tale. So when Lisa Berndle is taken away in the spiral stairway, it looks like that her dream, her fidelity, and her patience are rightly rewarded.

But the rest of the film would show how this repeat was actually misleading. It does show the delight of the pianist as he seduces once again a woman, and a woman falls once again for him, once again repeated. It does not usher in a change that would fully satisfy Lisa Berndle, quite the contrary – the affair does not last.

Expectations and feelings get dashed, her train of thoughts wrecked by more real trains taking away her life at two distinct times. The first high point in the never-ending pleasure cruise Lisa Berndle and her idol make in the Prater fair – the second is a typically romantic and spellbinding dance – takes place in a fake train: an attraction that makes people think they are travelling around the world as the windows show paintings of famous landscapes. In a deeply heartbreaking move, tinged with bitter irony, trains set for wonderful places, Milan, a corner of the Austrian countryside, mark the moment things take the wrong turn, throwing Lisa Berndle into despair. In the first case, while they are still in love with each other, and dating often, Stefan Brand must go to the Italian city for two weeks, to give hastily arranged concerts. Away from her, and she senses it right away, he soon forgets about her: she ends up alone, once again, and when she discovers the relation has made her pregnant, she feels compelled to hide away, and to fare for herself and her baby without making a fuss and a scandal.

In the second case, nearly a decade later, she sends her son away to vacation, knowing full well she is not going to see him again, as she plans to go back to the pianist – they have lost touch with each other but one evening he seems to recognize her and wishes to meet her, and she just cannot reject the temptation, irking her husband, Johann Stauffer. But the train has been carrying people who got sick with typhus – the son catches the pathogen, and the mother would also dies. And she would die being once again lonely and aggrieved. The reunion she expected, and dreaded, with Stefan Brand turned out to be a disaster: he talked a lot, charmed a lot, and never realized he was with a woman whom he used to love and whose own love was so deep for so much time. Yes, that moment on the spiral stairway was misleading: she has never been but one of so many flirts. And the only movement that was not deceiving was the ponderous, mechanized movement of trains, those who run in the dreary reality, of course, and not the trains of amusement and fantasy, taking away those who are loved but are doomed to vanish from your own life, before it is your turn to be carried away from life.

“Letter from an Unknown Woman” is a somber, wistful tale, expressed through the voice-over of Lisa Berndle as her words are read by Stefan Brand – in keeping with the clever construction of the short story of Stefan Zweig that the film adapts. The gamut of emotions, from the blushing and the brooding of the teenager to the heartfelt lucidity of the woman in the death throes, defining the tragic passion of Lisa Berndle is conveyed with remarkable subtlety and warm sympathy, relating the growing ordeal the woman must eventually recognize as such, a moving tribute to the female way of loving, and by contrast the sharp portrait of a vain and careless manliness. The cast is brilliant, their sensible performances highlighted by the graceful mise en scène of Max Ophüls.

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