Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Dir. by Max Ophuls

Images: Ophuls’s influence on Kubrick is obvious here. His camera moves constantly, but always slowly and gracefully. It tracks forward and backward, from side to side, through the cramped rooms of Brand’s apartment, taking in, with almost novelistic detail, the impressively realized mise-en-scene. An important recurring motif is a dramatic crane shot that appears to float over the stairwell, looking down on Lisa.

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An opening title card situates us in fin-de-siecle Vienna, where we are introduced to Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), a graying, but distinguished looking aristocrat, who returns to his apartment late one night to begin preparations for his immediate departure. Brand has chosen to flee Vienna rather than confront the man who would duel him in three hours. His preparations are halted, though, by a letter delivered to him by his mute servant, John (Art Smith). The anonymous letter details the tragic fate of Lisa Berndl (Joan Fontaine) and begins: “By the time you read this letter, I may be dead. . . . If this reaches you, you will know how I became yours when you didn’t know who I was or even that I existed.” The remainder of the film dramatizes the story contained within Lisa’s letter, beginning nearly twenty years earlier, when the then teenage girl first developed her hopeless devotion to the handsome concert pianist who lived in the apartment across from hers.

Letter essentially follows the trajectory of a Thomas Hardy novel: Lisa pines desperately, refuses the proposal of an honorable suitor, and abandons her parents — all sacrifices made to her absurd romantic delusions of a future happiness with Brand. When our hero and heroine are finally united, Ophuls stages it in the trademark style of his day — their faces are pressed together in a close-up; their passion is heightened by a swell of syrupy strings — but a sense of tragedy suffocates the seduction. Once Brand leaves for a brief concert tour, Ophuls elides the nine months of Lisa’s pregnancy before cutting again, this time to her comfortable life with her husband, Johann (Marcel Journet), and her young son. However, a chance reunion with Stefan soon precipitates Lisa’s ultimate fall, which culminates in the final lines of the letter, a note to Brand added by the nuns who tended Lisa’s deathbed.

In reading over what little I could find online, I was surprised to find Letter described as a “classic three-tissue melodrama” and a “lush tearjerker par excellence.” I’m almost ashamed to admit my biases against such films, biases that reared their ugly heads at the first glimpse of the 31-year-old Fontaine playing the naïve, pubescent Lisa. But the combination of Ophuls’s camerawork and pacing, along with Howard Koch’s biting (and decidedly unromantic) script were more than enough to overcome my personal baggage. What few remaining reservations I may have harbored were wiped away during the following exchange between Lisa and Johann, who recognizes that his hopes of happiness have been dashed by Stefan’s return:

Lisa: Johann, you don’t think I wanted this to happen.
Johann: No. (Pause) What are you going to do?
Lisa: I don’t know.
Johann: Lisa, we have a marriage. Perhaps it’s not all you once hoped for, but you have a home, and your son, and people who care for you.
Lisa: I know that, Johann. I’d do anything to avoid hurting you, but I can’t help it.
Johann: And your son, you think you can avoid hurting him?
Lisa: He won’t be harmed. I’ll see to that.
Johann: There are such things as honor and decency.
Lisa: I told myself that a hundred times this one evening.
Johann: You talk as though it were out of your hands. It’s not Lisa. You have a will, you can do what’s right, what’s best for you, or you can throw away your life.
Lisa: I’ve had no will but his, ever.
Johann: That’s romantic nonsense.
Lisa: Is it? Johann, I can’t help it. I can’t. You must believe that.
Johann: What about him? Can’t he help himself either?
Lisa: I know now that he needs me as much as I’ve always needed him.
Johann: Isn’t it a little late for him to find out?

Rather than a classic melodrama or lush tearjerker, Letter strikes me as their antithesis: an ironic critique of the romance genre (“nonsense,” Johann calls it). As in films like Terrence Malick’s Badlands, we are constantly forced to confront the friction between the harsh, indifferent world depicted on screen and the narrator’s deluded, socialized justification (or deliberate ignorance) of it. My favorite moment comes near the end when Stefan and Lisa are reunited. She returns to his old apartment, knowing that doing so necessarily sacrifices her marriage. Once inside, though, she finally recognizes how unworthy Stefan has been of her devotion, unmasking him for the pathetic, juvenile rake that he is. And yet, as her voice-over speaks the final lines of the letter, we hear her once again profess her undying love for him. That disconnect between the truth of her brutal experience and the fantasy to which she escapes is just fascinating, and it lends the film the same bleak tenor that characterizes O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. Actually, Lisa would fit in quite well with the fine folks at Harry’s: “The hell with the truth! It’s the lie of a pipedream that gives life.”