Director: Max Ophuls
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan, Mady Christians
Release Date: January 1950 (UK)
I admit it – I didn’t attend film school. As far as criticism is concerned, I am entirely self-taught and played hooky when I wasn’t looking. You can see the result of this dilettante negligence should you care to wade through this section’s back catalog; yes, we’ve covered Shadows (1959), Last Year in Marienbad (1961) and…well, it’s not that I’m entirely ignorant of the classics, I’ve just not been schooled in them, that’s all. This means I occasionally encounter, during the feverish process of picking a film for the coming week’s feature (usually at one in the morning while high on chamomile tea), a film every critic in the world regards as a monument in film-making which I’ve never heard of before in my life.
Such a film is Letter from an Unknown Woman, directed by the German-born Max Ophuls, whose name rang a vague bell (for no particular reason, as it transpired I’d not heard of any of his other acclaimed films either). I happened upon the title in that old standby Halliwell’s Film Guide (1986), where the worthy Mr Halliwell gave LFAUW a maximum four star rating. Flicking through my library saw LFAUW written of in equally revered tones, and yea even unto the digital age, with glowing reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB. This required investigation, and LFAUW was available to watch for nothing on YouTube, always a deal-breaker.
And…it’s not that LFAUW is a ‘difficult’ film. LFAUW could run on a TV station in an early morning slot, or as an afternoon matinee, or even as a late-night presentation on a highbrow arts station, all would find it an audience. The film is lavish and made with great care, and boasts stunning sets, as close to the feel of pre-World War One Vienna as one can imagine. Yet as I watched, something about LFAUW began to frustrate, even repel me. Have you ever cleared out an elderly relative’s house, and found some heirloom in the back of a deep drawer – photographs or theater programs perhaps, kept in an empty box of chocolates of a brand no longer made, the violet tissue paper giving off wafts of wood polish, of decades of darkness and someone else’s faded memories? On first viewing, LFAUW felt like this, something stuck in the back of a cupboard grown fuzzy and lifeless through lack of light. What made LFAUW so vivid for other viewers, a film made by, according to The New Yorker in 2015, “one of the most delicate, exacting and effervescent stylists in the history of cinema”?
The film and I got off to a bad start with its opening caption: “Vienna, about 1900.” No-one would open a film with “New York, about 2015.” No-one involved in the making of LFAUW would have said, to some putative nit-picker from the future, “I live in about 1950”. So please, let’s have a little precision.
I already feel like a philistine. Urgh.
A hansom cab drops off Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) who is asked by two friends whether he’ll “really go through with it.” Avoiding their gaze, Stefan replies “I don’t mind being killed, it’s getting up early I don’t like.” That’s more like it, now the film has my sympathy. Stefan’s friends advise him to lay off the cognac and they’ll return for him at the unholy hour of five in the morning.
Of course, the first thing Stefan, a handsome and raffish-looking fellow, does is order cognac from his mute manservant John (a sweet, steady performance from Art Smith) and make immediate plans to scarper. Telling John to pack for an indefinite stay, Stefan explains “honor is a luxury only gentleman can afford.” We sense an air of threat towards our hero – if he is a hero – set out through no more than tone and suggestion. That said, part of my problem with LFAUW is the audience needs to fill in the gaps while feeling there’s no space permitted to them; it is all of a flow, a sluggish, broad river with too few stepping stones. Or I’m just slow on the uptake.
A letter arrived for Stefan while he was out, sent from St Catherine’s Hospital. We hear the arresting first line read for us in a female voice: “by the time you read this letter, I may be dead.” This stops Stefan in his tracks, and he reads on. The letter’s author explains she has little time left and desires to take both herself and Stefan through their story, although “what happened to us is beyond our understanding.”
I use the words ‘her’ and ‘she’, yet Stefan doesn’t know the identity of the letter-writer, although we do, thanks to the narration. We’ve gone from being one step behind Stefan (we don’t learn what’s led him to consider fleeing from Vienna as yet) to a step ahead, and we learn who this woman behind the letter is long before Stefan.
Our ‘unknown woman’ is something of a philosopher, observing “I believe we have two birthdays, the date of our physical birth, and the beginning of consciousness.” We travel back in time to the mystery woman’s teenage years, and a particular afternoon when she arrived home from school to find a new neighbor moving into the courtyard. Admiring the newcomer’s furniture as removal men unpack their carts, the girl, Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) is called into her apartment by her mother, whose stern manner indicates Lisa isn’t allowed a great deal of personal freedom.
We know the new neighbor is a musician, as the removal men struggle to hoist a piano up a staircase; as the men unpack the musician’s belongings, so Lisa unpacks his identity. Lisa learns the as-yet-unseen man’s name is Stefan Brand, a young and upcoming piano player. Lisa plays on a swing in the courtyard and listens to Stefan practice. Soon Lisa joined by a friend, Marie (Carol Yorke), who complains at the noise, a bit much when Marie’s dialog is rendered almost unintelligible due to her eating an apple throughout the scene.
Stefan Brand makes his first appearance in Lisa’s life as he walks down the stairs to leave the apartments, and she opens the door for him – a reversal of the usual etiquette. Stefan looks back, curious about the girl standing behind the glass door, a neat visual for a character imprisoned by a transparent longing. Joan Fontaine’s performance attracted a great deal of attention in 1948; thirty at the time of the film’s production, in these opening scenes, Fontaine plays a girl of sixteen, perhaps younger. Lisa is gawky, awkward, a child who wants suddenly to be an adult, and yet the impression one gains is of a thirty-year old acting in a gawky, awkward manner in order to play a teenager. The impression is a good one, yet we are too aware of it as a performance for it to succeed.
“From that moment on, I knew I was in love with you.” Lisa begins to take care in her appearance, attends dancing school to learn manners and deportment, and studies the lives of the great composers at the local library. She also follows Stefan’s burgeoning career as a concert pianist, and observes his success with women, who Stefan brings back to his apartment with unwavering frequency.
At night, Lisa lies in bed, listening to Stefan make sweet sweet music (with the piano, not the ladies – though one wonders what else Lisa heard…), describing these times as “the happiest hours of my life.” Lisa sneaks out of bed, to listen closer to Stefan’s piano-playing, opening a window as a breeze wafts across her face. Music hints at freedom for Lisa, as well as love; we know this – as far as we can know anything through symbolism – as the shadow of a set of banisters falls across Lisa as she sits by the window, forming a set of bars seeking to contain her. Yet who is really imprisoning Lisa? Could it be herself? For as we shall see, Lisa Berndle is a remarkably passive lead character.
“In the building where I lived, Thursday was rug-beating day!” OK, so that’s my new favorite line from a movie, delivered by Fontaine with a glee all the odder for what looks a grim business, with dust billowing through the courtyard as filthy rugs get the damn good beating they deserve. Lisa persuades Marie to help John up the staircase with a particularly demanding rug, and takes the opportunity to snoop around Stefan’s apartment. Piano concerts must pay well, as Stefan keeps an opulent home, filled with paintings, antiques (well, from a 2016 perspective, everything here looks antique) and framed concert posters.
With this adventure done, Lisa finds herself on the brink on another, much less welcome. Frau Berndle (Mady Christians) has news for her daughter: “I want to tell you something…once you think about it sensibly, I’m sure you’ll be very happy.” This is a Hollywood melodrama, and good news is never good news. Herr Kastner, a military dealer from Linz, has proposed to Frau Berndle and she intends to accept. Of course, this means moving to Linz, away from Stefan, and Lisa does what any self-respecting adolescent would do – runs for her bedroom, slams the door shut and refuses entry to her mother.
The day of the move to Linz arrives, and the bumptious Herr Kastner (Howard Freeman) is in OCD mode at the train station, counting and re-counting the luggage and checking his pocket-watch. Lisa takes both fright and the tram home. “I had to see you one more time, cling to your feet and never let you go,” strong sentiments considering Lisa’s relationship with Stefan consists of opening the door for him once. Perhaps, in that teenage way, Lisa is overwhelmed by her new feelings and these have focused on the unobtainable figure who triggered those sensations in the first place.
Lisa waits in the stairwell above Stefan’s apartment and late into the night, the pianist returns with yet another giggling woman on his arm. Doubtless feeling more of a girl than ever, Lisa returns to the station and joins her parents.
“For you have lived life so freely, have you any idea what life is like in a small garrison town?” Linz is where Lisa reaches the age of 18, and must “take her place in society,” which back then meant being hawked around by one’s parents until you met the first eligible bachelor who could string two sentences together. And so it proves for Lisa, who Herr Kastner, as a friend of an army colonel, introduces his step-daughter to the colonel’s nephew, Lt. Leopold von Kaltnegger (John Good). Ophuls makes an interesting directorial decision here, leaving the shot uncluttered while Herr and Frau Kastner exchange pleasantries with the colonel, yet as soon as Lisa and Lt. von Kaltnegger are introduced, a horse and carriage clatters past, forcing the group onto a sidewalk, with the interactions now forced and awkward.
The Lieutenant escorts Lisa to fortnightly summer concerts, though the music played is more beer hall than concert hall. Matters comes to a head on one particular Saturday afternoon, as the Kastners and the Colonel, expecting an announcement and subsequent hat-buying expedition, watch on as Lisa and Leopold talk in private by the bandstand. In a scene uncomfortably close to many of my own romantic episodes, it becomes clear the Lieutenant is a lot keener on Lisa than the other way around. As soon as Leopold steers the conversation towards marriage, Lisa becomes panicky and breathless. The young man assures Lisa of his “outstanding future career in the military”, i.e. he intends to head up the Congo River, bag a few natives and not die of fever.
Lies spill from Lisa’s trembling lips as she tells the Lieutenant she’s secretly engaged to another man. Once more, Ophuls visualizes social awkwardness, as the brass band, playing a victory march (!), impede the young couple’s progress as Leopold returns Lisa to her parents and exits with the Colonel, off to hit the schnapps and grizzle about women while picking the label off the bottle. The Kastners demand Lisa tell them what she said to put off the Lieutenant. “I told him the truth,” Lisa replies. And in a way, she did.
“For my parents, this was the end. For me, it was a new beginning.” Lisa returns to Vienna, and bags a job modelling clothes at a fashionable shop owned by Frau Spitzer (Sonja Bryden), “a place where one learns many things.” In what little we see of this time in Lisa’s life, she seems to enjoy the work and the companionship of her fellow models. This doesn’t mean she’s in the shop window as far as men are concerned however, and she draws the curtains on two policemen who watch her attending to a window display.
After work each evening, Lisa hangs around street corners in dire need of a man. Let me rephrase that; Lisa waits near where she used to live, hoping to meet Stefan. Most nights, she makes do with listening to Stefan practice the piano, until the evening comes when he notices Lisa. There seems a connection between the two, and before you know it, they’re wandered off together without really knowing where they are headed. “I never arrive at the place I set out for,” jokes Stefan. Has their time come at last?
There follows an odd sequence set in Stefan’s preferred bar, where he blows off various dates and appointments via the Concierge (Otto Waldis), who acts like Stefan’s enabler, and congratulates him on the ‘good choice’ of Lisa. The Concierge accepts a gratuity for helping Stefan re-arrange his social diary, and a casual or first-time viewer might take all this as a sign the pianist is so struck on Lisa he changes all his plans to get to know her better.
By the by, the amount of spare change people needed to carry around with them back then must have been burdensome. In every other scene a character, usually Stefan, tips some lackey or subordinate with a few pfennigs in order to help ease things along. Pockets were deep in about 1900 it seems, and full of shrapnel. Thank God for chip and pin, I say.
Stefan takes the controversial decision to take Lisa to a restaurant for lobster, possibly the worst food you can choose for a first date – there’s all that mess, not to mention the unpleasant moment picking which lobster from the tank gets the ‘hot bath and butter’ treatment and you feel like a murderer for the rest of the night. Not that it bothers our hungry couple, and Lisa asks Stefan to talk about himself while he’s pulling dead crustaceans apart.
Admitting he’s felt uneasy of late, Stefan wonders if success has come to him too soon. Lisa, still in part the awkward girl of a few years ago, while also developing her emotional intelligence, offers a critique: “when I listen to your music, I feel you haven’t fond what you’re looking for.” Stefan declares Lisa “a sorceress!” and predicts she might help him one day. Outside, Stefan buys Lisa a single white rose from a flower-seller.
The pair walk on through the snow to a fairground, open against all reason at night and in the depths of winter. Lisa imagines Stefan enjoys the fairground at this time of year, as it’s more fun to think forward to how it will look in spring, and who doesn’t like riding a ferris wheel when it’s -10C outside? After taking in the waxworks and the world’s largest toffee apple stand, Stefan and Lisa take a ride on a fake train, an indoor attraction where painted backgrounds, propelled by an elderly gentleman riding a bicycle-type contraption, representing various countries slide past stationary carriages. Trains come to play an important role in Lisa’s life, yet here with her ‘true love’ Stefan, we are presented with a journey made of confection and artifice, in which she moves not one inch forward.
The ride into the inauthentic continues as Lisa rattles off a description of Rio de Janeiro, claiming to have visited the city when she gives what sounds like a guidebook description – which she admits it is, from leaflets given to her father by a friend in the travel industry. As they ‘travel’ through Switzerland, Stefan points out the Matterhorn, which he claims to have climbed (I have my doubts). “Tell me,” asks Lisa, “when you climb up a mountain, what then?” “Then you climb down again!” replies Stefan, a little bewildered by the question, as someone less cerebral than a woman who’s relied on imagination, rather than physical prowess, to sustain her in life. Stefan makes one of his many claims of not knowing Lisa (indeed, he hasn’t even asked her her name yet), sits next to Lisa and sniffs her hair; fun no doubt, but far from the best way to better acquaint yourself with a lady.
This is a peculiar and telling scene, almost post-modern in the way it feeds off itself. As with all films, LFAUW is a fake that invites us to take it for real, yet the invitation is stronger in a film which tries convince us it exists while demonstrating a pretend journey which exhibits the film’s nature as a film. The carriage window becomes another projection screen, the painted backdrops another film, echoing our experience of LFAUW by taking its fictional characters through a fictional journey – we too, at the film’s conclusion, will end where we began.
Vienna was a twenty-four hour party city back in the early twentieth century, as Lisa and Stefan move on to a cafe bar complete with an all-female band, though they’re no Haim or Sleater-Kinney. The only remaining patrons Lisa and Stefan dance, much to the band’s chagrin: “I only like playing for married people,” one grumbles, “they’ve got homes to go to.” The band complete their song and pack up and clear out with Van Morrison-like speed. To Stefan and Lisa it seems as if the band have vanished into thin air, adding to the dream-like quality of the night. Stefan accedes to Lisa’s request to play piano. “Promise me you won’t vanish,” says Stefan. “I won’t,” replies Lisa, sitting at Stefan’s feet like an obedient, devoted pet.
Stefan takes Lisa back to his apartment. They embrace, kiss, and the screen fades to black, which in 1948 meant they totally did it.
The next day, Stefan visits Lisa at the clothes boutique. While she models a dress for him (it really isn’t his color), Stefan breaks the news that his orchestra is traveling to Milan that evening for a two week engagement, a detail he’d neglected to mention previously. Would Lisa see him off at the station?
Making it to the platform with moments to spare, Lisa sees Stefan surrounded by a gaggle of adoring women. Tearing himself away, Stefan again describes Lisa (still nameless to him) as a mystery. “You like a mystery,” replies Lisa with a “I am Heathcliff,” vibe about her. “That a woman like you exists, and we met, is mystery enough,” is Stefan’s romantic, inadequate parting message, aside from “two weeks!”
“Stefan, how little you knew yourself. That train took you out of my life.” Nine months later, and Lisa has heard nothing from Stefan. How do I know nine months has passed? Let’s just say Stefan’s performance with Lisa in his apartment has an encore in St Catherine’s Hospital where a nun, with a cornette Sally Field would shrink from, questions Lisa on the providence of this prodigy. The besotted girl has named the baby boy Stefan yet refuses to name the daddy. “I wanted to be the one woman who wouldn’t ask anything of you,” she narrates to Stefan. “I regret you never met your son.”
We see Stefan, who can’t decide whether to drown his sorrows or toast the good news, look through pictures of his son. “There were times I prefer not to remember,” Lisa tells us, which could stand as a motto for her life. Nine years pass, and Lisa marries Johann Stouffer (Marcel Journet), who knows the truth regarding Lisa’s past, and by the time the letter has reached her former lover, has also met Stefan…
Life becomes secure for Lisa and Stefan Jnr, as Herr Stouffer is a man of wealth and status, though not the most charismatic man to frequent the opera houses of Vienna. As Lisa and Johann prepare for a night of The Magic Flute (not a euphemism), Stefan Jnr is prepared for beddy-byes. No woman is ever as glamorous as one’s mother as she leaves for a night out when you’re a kid, and by this stage in her life, Lisa is a confident woman, a devoted mother, and a considerate, if not passionate, wife bedecked with jewels and finery.
Stefan Jnr has inherited some musical talent, if you call playing the harmonica talent (and it’s a SWISS harmonica, back reference alert!). On addressing Johann as “sir”, Stefan Jnr is reminded by his mother it’s time he called mother’s special friend “father” instead. He’s a Hamlet waiting to happen, that kid.
Off we go for a night at the opera, and Ophuls keeps his camera busy, gliding through the crowds, swooning towards one couple and then another. It’s tempting to suggest Lisa’s narration is as much a commentary on Ophuls’ technique as on the nature of fate: “I know now that nothing happens by chance. Every moment is measured, every step is counted.” That, or Lisa is again justifying her own passivity. As she and her husband enter the auditorium for the second act of the opera, Lisa overhears a group talking about a particular pianist: “ten years ago, he had a great talent,” comments one. “Perhaps talent isn’t enough,” replies a friend. And then Lisa sees Stefan in the audience.
“Suddenly everything was in danger, everything I felt was safe…the years melted away.” Leaving on the excuse of a headache, Lisa sends orders for the family coach to take her home. Stefan has noticed, and confronts Lisa: “I had to talk to you,” he tells her, “I couldn’t place you. When could we have met?” Rather than ask Stefan why two weeks in Milan became ten frickin’ years of Nowhere, Lisa asks “what are you waiting for?” A disturbing question, as Stefan notes, for it makes little sense, unless Lisa is covering Stefan’s lack of excuses with a kind of mock-profundity, in the hope of allowing him to question himself.
If so, it doesn’t work, as Stefan views women as to how they can please him: “I felt you could help me…when I saw you, I felt I’d found the face I’d been looking for.” Lisa’s coach arrives and she hurries away.
Lisa gasps on entering the carriage – Johann awaits her. The man she married for the sake of her son knows Lisa better than she imagined. The novelist Iris Murdoch once described love as the realization that other people exist, yet this revelation eludes both Lisa and Stefan throughout LFAUW. Stefan treats all women as a means to an end, while Lisa is barely aware of anyone’s reality, even her son, who she idolizes in place of his father. This is where the figure of John, the mute butler, becomes so interesting, for a man without a voice surmises how Lisa and Stefan view the rest of the world.
As they ride home, Lisa explains she hadn’t intended the meeting and would do anything to avoid hurting Johann. “You talk as if it is out of your hands,” remarks Johann. “You have a will,” he reminds her, refusing to accept fate as an excuse. “Not without him,” replies Lisa. “We need each other.”
Continuing the discussion indoors, Johann warns Lisa “if you go through with this, you can never turn back.” Johann will do all he can to stop such a liaison – and Ophuls places Johann near a set of mounted fencing swords, a neat way of saying the obvious without saying it at all.
Time for Stefan Jnr to return to boarding school, and again Lisa is at the other end of a promise to return in two weeks from a male she loves (at this point, LFAUW starts to lay it on a touch thick). Lisa’s parting will become more traumatic than she knows; we hear a train guard mention the carriage Lisa and her son are occupying is quarantined. The guard moves them on, but after the train departs and Lisa leaves the station, we see a body carried away on a stretcher, a victim of typhus.
Typhus, a common threat in pre-WW1 Europe, was found in 1928 to be carried by ticks and lice, so that’s one train that needs extreme cleansing (thus, typhus remains a problem for British train travelers to this day). Whether the makers of LFAUW were aware of all this in 1948 I’m unsure, but think twice before you look at the glamour and opulence seen in such a film and wishing you could visit ‘the good old days.’
Lisa tracks down Stefan Brand to his old apartment, unaware she’s under Johann’s observation. Stefan is pleased to see Lisa, and tells her she’s even more beautiful than he remembers – but how well does Stefan remember this woman? Stefan claims he’s older and wiser, and time appears to have worked some of its ravages upon him, with his hair graying and his manner now more cynical and dissipated. Stefan no longer plays the piano since the time, after a perfunctory performance at a concert, he looked into a mirror and saw “the prodigy was no longer a prodigy.” Unable to develop beyond a certain age or way of thinking, Stefan has in a sense become like the woman – girl, perhaps – who loves him.
Lifting Lisa’s veil, Stefan sees only the woman from the opera. Lisa’s longed-for romantic moment is dashed, as Johann talks of his recent trip to America. There is no mention of the night at the fairground, no word of waxworks, toffee apples or painted mountains, nor of dancing at the cafe with the all-woman band. “Are you lonely out there?” asks Stefan, busying himself with drinks. “Very lonely,” replies the broken Lisa who exits the apartment, the white roses she bought left unnoticed upon a chessboard. I’m unconvinced every viewer will pick up on the clues to what’s happening in this scene, as it’s possible to take Stefan’s indifference at face value and assume he knows who Lisa is and merely hasn’t expressed as such. This is one difficulty of transferring prose into film (LFAUW is based on a 1922 novella by Stefan Zweig), with a lifetime of a character, and days or weeks of reading, forced into less than two hours of film. The Guardian‘s David Thomson, in his 2010 review of LFAUW, describes Stefan’s memory problems as “tricky to manage in a movie where the imagery is so immense and so radiant and the action is only ninety minutes. But Louis Jourdan does it very well.”
“I offered you my life. You didn’t even remember me,” narrates Lisa as she walks the streets of Vienna, in some evocative shots so convincing one must remind oneself LFAUW was shot in America, not Austria.
Lisa explains she returned to Stefan Jnr’s side on learning of his illness. “He died last night of typhus. If God is kind, I have caught it too.” We switch from shots of the doomed Lisa writing her letter to Stefan reading the missive. “I measured my life by moments with you and your son. If only you recognized what was always yours, what was never lost…if only…”
The clock tower chimes five o’clock. In learning the truth of his life, Stefan has condemned himself to almost certain death; we know it’s Lisa’s husband who challenged Stefan to a duel. We, and Stefan, have come full circle. Pinning a white rose to his lapel, Stefan shakes hands with John, who knew Lisa’s identity all the while, but was never asked and could never tell. Stefan boards his friends’ carriage and leaves to meet his fate.
Writing out LFAUW‘s synopsis gives me a greater appreciation of the film’s construction, though I still have reservations. The film has depth yet somehow only travels upon its surface, like a ice-skater making the same exquisite loop over and over. The problem comes in Lisa’s one-eyed devotion to Stefan making her a less interesting character than Stefan himself, who at least uncovers some kind of self-truth. Lisa is unwilling to live under her own volition, moving from one encounter with Stefan to another – if so, little wonder trains play such a symbolic role in her life. Lisa’s life is a set pattern, part inherited from her mother, yet as Johann points out, Lisa follows the pattern as if she possesses no will of her own.
As for the leads, Louis Jourdan plays Stefan Brand with easy suaveness, adding touches of bitterness and fatigue to the older Stefan. Joan Fontaine grows into her role, becoming more likable as Lisa grows into adulthood, conveying her final heartbreak in a way suggesting recognition of her fate than any amount of tearful hysteria would have achieved.
Despite all this, there’s a muffled, stifling quality to LFAUW which makes it a film for admiration rather than devotion, while the film’s intelligence is not so much in the story as the story-telling, and LFAUW is really a simple story at heart. It’s the flipside of Last Year at Marienbad; Renoir’s film is depth faking it as surface, whereas LFAUW is surface masquerading as depth. Unlike Last Year at Marienbad, the story of LFAUW rules over the existential concerns it can, in the end, only suggest at; Penelope Houston’s comment in The Contemporary Cinema (1963) that “LFAUW must be one of the most evocatively ‘European’ pictures ever made in Hollywood” is valid, but LFAUW is still a Hollywood film for all that. But what do I know? Perhaps I should stick to reviewing Godzilla films or, rather like the mute butler John, just stand back and let others do the talking, to find genius or foolishness as they will.