by Mike Norton
In early twentieth century Vienna, a washed up concert pianist, Stefan Brand (Louis Jordan), emerges from the rain soaked streets into his apartment, after confirming a duel the next morning that would undoubtedly end in his death, to find a letter waiting for him. The first lines of the letter, read in voiceover by Joan Fontaine, state simply and grimly- “By the time you read this letter, I may already be dead”. Fontaine plays the titular woman sending the letter, Lisa, and her narration sets in motion the main plot of the film, told in flashback from Lisa’s point of view. What follows is an epic melodrama bursting at the seams with emotion, expressed evocatively by director Max Ophüls’ camera poetry and the complex screenplay from Howard Koch, based off the novella of the same name written by Stefan Zweig. It is one of the most acutely and devastatingly felt American romantic films of all time.
We first meet Lisa as a teenager in Vienna when a dashing new tenant moves into her apartment complex. It’s Stefan Brand, a successful and talented concert pianist, and Lisa quickly becomes entranced by the man, despite never coming into direct contact with him. She listens yearningly to his playing of the piano, which she describes in her voice over as the “happiest hours of my life”. If melodrama is a genre based on bottled up emotion, than Lisa represents the perfect melodrama heroine. Her passion for Stefan starts off innocently enough, but when her family moves to Lintz and sets her up to marry a sweet, if dull, Army Lieutenant, she flees back to Vienna to be with the man who she truly loves, even if he still doesn’t know she exists.
Stefan’s acknowledgement, or lack thereof, of Lisa’s love for him becomes the main tragedy of the film. When they finally meet, Brand becomes fascinated by Lisa, who likewise is fascinated by Brand. The dialogue between them is brimming with deeper meaning and foreshadowing, a testament to the brilliance of Koch’s screenplay. Take this fairly banal exchange outside a glass display of wax models-
Lisa: For instance. I don’t know if one day, they’ll make a wax figure of you and put you in there because you’ll be so famous.
Stefan: Well, if they do, will you pay your penny to come in and see me?
Lisa: If you’ll come alive.
The irony of these lines becomes evident by the film’s end, when Lisa dies without Stefan’s knowledge of her. The wax model is something of a metaphor for the imagined perfection we build in our heads of people. Indeed, Letter from an Unknown Woman is about blissful artifice, how the reality is often disappointing and downright depressing when compared to the want, or the imagined. In one of the most memorable scenes of the film, Lisa and Stefan ride a cyclorama ride with a painted canvas rolling past them depicting fantasy worlds that isolate the couple from real life. Real trains in this film are cruel messengers of fate- in one instance, Lisa says goodbye to Stefan as he boards a train, promising to return to her in two weeks when in reality it’s the last true moment they’ll share together, and in another, Lisa says goodbye to her son as he boards a train, the last she will see of him as he dies of typhus that spreads through the passengers on the train. Ophüls suffocates the viewer with intense close ups of Fontaine’s longing face in both instances, and Fontaine carries these shots, infusing them with sincere, believable longing.
Ophüls does indeed call attention to the film’s own artifice, making this film the perfect marriage of style and content. He brings his European flair to the material, influenced by German expressionists, especially F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, utilizing languid tracking shots that pick up the characters as they move through their environment, and slow zooms and long takes that create a fluid pace. Had the film been shot in a straightforward way, the effect would be lost. This is a theatrically based melodrama that is also distinctly cinematic thanks to the emphasis on camera placement and movement. Cinematographer Franz Planer renders Vienna and the other settings of the film poetically, from the somehow warmly snowy streets in which Stefan and Lisa walk when they first meet, to the slick, rainy streets Stefan occupies later in the film, and the exceedingly sunny setting of Lintz which perhaps suggests a false feeling of security for Lisa that she desperately wants to break by returning to Vienna. The score, by Daniele Amfitheatrof, is simply one of the most effective in film history.
The intricate plot of the film picks up after Stefan leaves Lisa years later, now that Lisa has, unknown to Stefan, fathered Stefan’s child and married a well off man named Johann (Howard Freeman) who knows about her past love for Stefan (this is the man Stefan will duel as alluded to in the beginning of the film). Stefan’s re-introduction to the film brings the tragedy full circle. In the most emotionally painful scenes in the film, Lisa gives up everything by appearing in Stefan’s apartment after meeting him at an opera. Stefan is now older and lonelier, failed in his career as a pianist and in his quest to find what he thinks is the perfect girl. It’s here where the theme of memory enters the film, since Stefan tragically doesn’t remember Lisa despite Lisa’s unconditional devotion to Stefan. In this way, Letter from an Unknown Woman anticipates Vertigo, which also utilized the tragic theme of memory, but in an inverse way, as James Stewart’s Scottie tries to re-create his past love by literally creating a new woman. In a more superficial way, Vertigo, like Letter, takes somewhat sappy material and, thanks to bold artistic choices by its director and intensely romantic music (Scene D’Amour, anyone?) elevates it to best-of-all-time status.
Letter from an Unknown Woman is chock full of poignant images that stand out in the viewer’s head long after the final credits roll. One of these is towards the end of the film, when Stefan has finished reading the letter from Lisa and is now embarking on the duel that he will most certainly lose. Outside his apartment complex, he sees a ghost image of the teenage Lisa standing innocently by his door. This imagery recalls the ghosts of the city girl that torment the protagonist of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. In Letter, though, the imagery evokes not feelings of temptation but of sadness and nostalgia. It makes Stefan’s suicide mission (which is not depicted on screen) seem almost noble, the least he could do for wrecking this woman’s life, bringing the film to a satisfactory, if bittersweet, conclusion.