Thursday, April 18, 2019

Letter from an Unknown Woman

Letter from an Unknown Woman. World tour at the Prater panorama train. Louis Jourdan (Stefan Brand) and Joan Fontaine (Lisa Berndle). Photo from IMDb. Please click to enlarge the image!

Kirje tuntemattomalta naiselta / Brevet från en okänd kvinna / Brief einer Unbekannten / Lettre d'une inconnue / Lettera da una sconosciuta / Письмо незнакомки.
    US © 1948 Rampart Productions, Inc. Original distr: Universal. EX: William Dozier. P: John Houseman. D: Max Ophuls (as Max Opuls). SC: Howard Koch – based on the short story "Der Brief einer Unbekannten" (1922) by Stefan Zweig. DP: Frank Planer – 35 mm – b&w – 1,37:1. AD: Alexander Golitzen. Set dec: Russell A. Gausman, Ruby R. Levitt. Cost: Travis Banton. Makeup: Bud Westmore. Hair: Carmen Dirigo. ED: Ted J. Kent. S: Leslie E. Carey, Glenn E. Anderson – mono (Western Electric Recording).
    M: Daniele Amfitheatrof.
Franz Liszt: Un sospiro (Étude No. 3, en ré bémol majeur, from: Trois études de concert, S. 144) (1845–1849). Played on the piano by Stefan, dubbed by Jakob Gimpel, theme music of the film: love theme, Stefan's theme.
W. A. Mozart: 39 Sinfonie Es-Dur (1788) KV 543.
Richard Wagner: "O du, mein holder Abendstern", Wolfram's aria in the third act of Tannhäuser (1845). (Brass band. Proposal on the Linz town square).
Johann Strauss (Vater): "Radetzky-Marsch" (1848), Op. 228. (Brass band. Proposal called off).
W. A. Mozart: "Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen", Papageno's aria from Die Zauberflöte (1791) KV 620, Act 2, Scene 5. Sung in Italian. Melody: the German folk song "Üb' immer Treu und Redlichkeit".
Johann Strauss (Sohn): "Wiener Blut" (1873), Op. 354.
    C: Joan Fontaine (Lisa Berndle), Louis Jourdan (Stefan Brand), Mady Christians (mother Berndle), Marcel Journet (Johann Stauffer), Art Smith (John, the mute butler), Carol Yorke (Marie), Howard Freeman (Mr. Kastner), John Good (Ltn Leopold von Kaltnegger), Leo B. Pessin (Stefan, Jr.), Erskine Sanford (porter), Otto Waldis (concierge), Sonja Bryden (Ms. Spitzer).
    Studios: Universal Studios, Republic Studios.
    Filming dates: Aug-Oct 1947.
    New York premiere: 28 April 1948.
    Helsinki premiere: 14 Oct 1949 Elysee, distributed by Oy Filmiseppo. Re-release: 5 Feb 1960 Corona, distributed by Valio-Filmi Oy. First telecast: 30 Sep 1962 Yle TV1. VET 30408. 87 min
    Other adaptations: Narkose (DE 1927, D: Alfred Abel), Only Yesterday (US 1933, D: John M. Stahl), Valkoiset ruusut (FI 1943, D: Hannu Leminen), Letter from an Unknown Woman (tvm, US 1952, D: Franklin J. Schaffner), Etsi esvyse i zoi mou (GR 1952, D: Christos Spentzos), Feliz año, amor mío (MX 1957, D: Tulio Demicheli), Ressalah min emraa maghoula (EG 1963, D: Salah Abouseif), Moleuneun yeoinui pyeonji (KR 1969, D: Kim Eung-cheon), Yi feng mo sheng nü zi de lai xin (TW 1974/1976, starring Joan Lin / Lin Feng-jiao), Douce est la nuit (c.m., IDHEC, FR 1982, D: Hervé Morzadec), Lettre d'une inconnue (tvm, FR 2002, D: Jacques Deray), Yi ge mo sheng nu ren de lai xin (CN 2004, D: Xu Jinglei).
    Other adaptations: Claude Beylie in his Max Ophuls book (Éditions des Quatre-Vents, 1984) mentions an adaptation "directed and interpreted by the quite talented amateur Paul Cleva during the early sound period" (footnote 38 to Letter from an Unknown Woman).
    Dvd projection at Kumpula Film Society, Physicum lecture hall, Helsinki, 18 April 2019.

I had the pleasure to introduce Letter from an Unknown Woman at a film society screening, followed by a long and lively discussion at the Oljenkorsi pub.

Directed by Max Ophuls, based on the story by Stefan Zweig, Letter from an Unknown Woman was a Joan Fontaine vehicle.

It's one of the most known, most widely seen films, thanks to the fact that in the 1950s it fell into public domain and was constantly in teleplay, also in our country.

Well-known though the film may be, it remains mysterious in many ways, hiding in plain sight. I always try to read its capsule introductions for telecasts, dvd releases and cinematheque screenings and am repeatedly amazed to register that the writer has probably not seen the film / has forgotten it / or misunderstood it. We seem to turn into a Stefan Brand, blind or amnesiac or both, regarding the Lisa Berndle story.

Is the film romantic or anti-romantic? A love story or not a love story? Is Lisa a heroine or an anti-heroine? Is this a story of a woman looking for romance and a man looking for sex? A tragic Magic Flute in which Pamina falls for Papageno?

We are introduced to Lisa Berndle as an awkward schoolgirl who falls in love with the piano maestro Stefan Brand even before she has met him. Hers is a grand illusion, and it takes her over 15 years to wake up. Lisa blossoms into a radiant, mature woman and mother, while Stefan is reduced to a shadow of his former self, he who used to be compared with the young Mozart.

Letter from an Unknown Woman is the story of a one-sided love affair. Nevertheless the presence of Stefan inspires Lisa to grow, widen her perspectives, study music and dance and learn manners of the high society. This is not superficial. From her little world Lisa reaches into the big world, externally but also internally. Love makes this happen, although her love object does not even seem to recognize her.

While Lisa grows, Stefan's development is arrested. Success has come early for him, and he has become a victim of his success. The great promise has not been fulfilled. He is a woman's man who conducts his affairs with a worldly routine without commitment, and also his human potential has stagnated.

It is in the definition of tragedy that greatness is within the reach of the protagonist, but s/he fails to realize it due to a fatal flaw in his/her character. During their only night of love Stefan realizes that Lisa has understood something crucial and vulnerable inside him just by listening to him rehearse "Un sospiro".

Stefan applies to Lisa his routines for his ladies of the night, but immediately there is also a difference, symbolized by his selecting for her a single white rose. Reading Lisa's letter in the framing story Stefan understands that there had always been for him an unknown alternative, complete with family and child, with the only woman who had the potential to understand him.

The film is elevated to grandeur by the dignity of its tragic vision.

It is directed with a superb sense of tact and style by Ophuls; the style is of the essence. The story of unrequited story is told as a "double narrative" to follow the term of Robin Wood whose two very different interpretations of the film are for me the most rewarding among many distinguished ones. Wood himself acknowledged the inspiration of V. F. Perkins who opened the film for him.

The film is told as a first person narrative in the voice of Lisa Berndle. We identify with her. But simultaneously we are distanced from her by the mise-en-scène and other means. Ophuls was a Brechtian director, and he uses distanciation effects even in portraying Lisa and Stefan's night of love.

Stefan puts to use his mechanism of seduction, and in the Prater scenes his love-making is interrupted by views in which the machinery of illusion is exposed – in the panorama train of the "world tour", and in the dance hall where bored female players drink beer and eat sausages.

Also the wonderful music score provides an often ironic commentary to the narrative. A distinction of Ophuls is that the romantic and ironic dimensions are not incompatible. The identification and distanciation structures evolve with great complexity. Illusion is exposed, but illusion can help approach the greatest things in life. The illusion disappears but the grandeur remains.

Loving is a means of deeply knowing, and even unfulfilled love can yield profound insight. Letter from an Unknown Woman is about la promesse de bonheur. Lisa and Stefan experience bitter disillusionment, but not without having tasted paradise.


On a rainy night in turn-of-the-century Vienna, Stefan Brand's friends drive him home and tell him they will return to collect him for his duel at dawn. Stefan informs his mute butler John that he has no intention of keeping this appointment, and instructs him to have a carriage ready in an hour. He then finds a letter waiting for him and is astonished by the first line: "By the time you read this letter I may be dead." The letter goes on to describe the writer's memories of first seeing Stefan: Young Lisa Berndle watches in fascination as the beautiful possessions of Stefan, a handsome concert pianist, are moved into the building where she lives. Although she is too shy to speak to him, Lisa quickly falls in love with her new neighbor, who comes to dominate her every thought. When Lisa's widowed mother remarries, the family moves to Linz, and Lisa eventually begins keeping company with Lt. Leopold von Kaltnegger. One afternoon, Leopold begins to speak of the future, and Lisa tells him she is secretly engaged to a musician in Vienna. Her mother and stepfather are shocked, and Lisa returns to Vienna and takes a job in an exclusive dress shop. One night, Stefan notices her standing on the street near his apartment, and is charmed and flattered by her devotion. After dining with her in an elegant restaurant, Stefan gives Lisa a single white rose, then takes her to an amusement park, where they dance until late in the night. They then return to Stefan's apartment and fall into a passionate embrace. The next day, Stefan visits Lisa at the dress shop and cancels their date for that evening, explaining that he must go to Milan for two weeks. He asks her to see him off at the train station, and bids her a warm farewell before joining another woman on the train. Stefan does not call Lisa again, however, and she later gives birth to a son, Stefan, Jr. Back in the present, Stefan looks with pleasure at the enclosed photos of the son he never knew he had. Lisa's letter continues that when the boy was nine, she married the wealthy Johann Stauffer: One night, Lisa and Johann, who treats Stefan's child like his own, go to the opera, and Lisa is stunned to see Stefan, whose musical career has not lived up to his early potential. Greatly agitated, Lisa tells Johann she has a headache and is about to go home when Stefan, who has been watching her from his seat, intercepts her and asks to see her again. Lisa hurries to her carriage, where she finds Johann waiting for her. As they ride home, Johann asks Lisa what she is going to do, and Lisa confesses that she feels powerless before Stefan and believes he needs her. The next day, Lisa puts her son on a train back to school, but they are asked to move after accidentally being seated in a compartment that has been quarantined. As Lisa walks away, bystanders comment that a case of typhus has been discovered on the train. Lisa then buys a bouquet of white roses and goes to see Stefan, as Johann observes her from his carriage. Stefan welcomes her amorously, but when she realizes that he truly has no idea who she is, Lisa leaves in tears. After wandering the streets of Vienna for hours, Lisa goes to see her son, only to learn that he died of typhus during the night. Now very ill herself, Lisa writes that she loves Stefan as much as she always has. The letter suddenly ends, and Stefan finds a note from a nun at the hospital saying that Lisa has died. With tears in his eyes, Stefan remembers the moments he shared with Lisa. Johann and his seconds arrive, and Stefan, ennobled by his sorrow, goes to fight a duel he knows he cannot win, pausing only to pluck a rose from the bouquet Lisa left behind.

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