LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (Max Ophüls, 1948)

Time is capable of reversing judgments, and certain films now cherished were at the time of their initial appearance dismissed, even disparaged. In 1948, in the United States, Letter from an Unknown Woman, directed by Max Ophüls during his Hollywood sojourn, was regarded as sentimental in the extreme. The contemporary reviewers had their day, and the public didn’t attend; it wanted Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Jane Russell. Television, though, gave the public another chance to see the film, and serious critics, studying it, searched out its place of achievement in the estimable Ophüls œuvre. Today, the film is widely regarded as a masterpiece. Seven of the critics and filmmakers polled by Sight & Sound in 2002 named it one of the ten best films ever made.

It’s a beautiful piece of work, easily the best thing that Ophüls did away from Europe. It’s so exactingly sad a film, however, that one approaches it cautiously; one can get lost in its powerful moods—and then where is one? Upon sober reflection, one might even wonder, “Does this portrait of a woman’s bottomless infatuation for a man—a man who woos her, impregnates her, discards her, and then, when their paths again cross, doesn’t even remember her—warrant the weight of concern with which the film invests it?” I think it does, but my view encounters the film in a context quite apart from feminism, the genres of “woman’s picture” and melodrama, and other issues and considerations that have been applied to the film in the past. I see the film with different eyes—my own eyes—and I feel its depth and passion differently. For me, the hopeless love of Lisa Berndl for her idealized concept of the womanizing Stefan Brand is due the tremendous feeling it attracts because of the historical—and, for Ophüls, highly personal—allegory it conjures. For me, the film is about so much more than it seems to be because its subjectivity, encapsulated in Lisa’s emotions, is inextricable from the objectivity of European history.

The story, scripted here by Howard Koch (who wrote William Wyler’s 1940 The Letter, from Maugham, and co-wrote, with the Epstein brothers, Casablanca), began as a 1922 short story by Stefan Zweig, an enormously popular and widely translated Austrian biographer and essayist with a psychoanalytical bent and, in his fiction, a penchant for combining delirious romance with unvarnished aspects of sexual politics. One takes Zweig seriously, literarily, at one’s own risk, and doing so requires an adolescent cast of heart capable of digesting cynical nuts and bolts amidst an oceanic stretch of confectionary dreaminess. That his story’s central male character is a writer—the film changes this to pianist and composer—perhaps suggests Zweig’s identification with his creation’s prodigious sexual activity: an author’s prerogative. The story, “Brief einer Unbekannten,” holds little promise of inspiring a worthwhile film but in fact inspired two: not only Letter from an Unknown Woman but the earlier Only Yesterday (1933), by John M. Stahl, and starring luminous, sherry-voiced Margaret Sullavan.

The advent of Hitler in Germany and the banning of his books discombobulated Zweig, and he wrote about the anti-Semitic course that Germany had taken, pronouncing it a national means of inflaming people in order to facilitate their subjugation: a breathtakingly prescient analysis. Zweig exiled himself to England in 1936, divorced his wife of eighteen years and married his secretary. Increasingly despondent over the course of a war that he had described as the suicide of Europe, he and his wife, Lotte, committed suicide together, in Rio de Janeiro, in 1942.

Ophüls was also a Jew; his stay in the U.S. claimed the same motive as had Zweig’s flight from Austria. A German, he nevertheless loved above all other cities Vienna, the city of Zweig’s birth. It’s turn-of-the-century Vienna that he re-created on Universal sound stages for Letter from an Unknown Woman. Two other events intervened between Zweig’s death and Ophüls’s film, both of which became essential underpinnings of the film. One was the heart-attack death in 1947 of Ernst Lubitsch, the Berlin-born Jew whose wonderful comedies, including Ninotchka (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and To Be or Not to Be (1942), Ophüls greatly admired. The other event, which began the year of Zweig’s suicide and came to terrible light at the end of the war, is the Holocaust.

The tremendous feeling of Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman derives, I believe, from the weight on his heart of two (for him) inextricably connected matters: Jewish deaths—Zweig’s, Lubitsch’s, and those of the Six Million—and the destruction of the Europe he remembered, the Europe that Lubitsch had conjured, on an MGM sound stage, as the pre-war Budapest of The Shop Around the Corner.

Few of us are unfamiliar with the film’s “plot.” Three hours before he is scheduled to fight a duel, Stefan Brand, who has no intention of keeping the appointment, begins reading a letter he received in the post that day. It is from a typhoid patient at St. Catherine’s Hospital, the wife, we will later learn, of the man Brand is supposed to face on the field of honor. We “hear” the letter as a bodiless voiceover, which begins: “By the time you read this letter, I may be dead. I have so much to tell you and perhaps very little time. Will I ever send it? I don’t know. I must find strength to write now before it’s too late, and as I write it may become clear that what happened to us had its own reason beyond our poor understanding. If this reaches you, you will know how I became yours when you didn’t know who I was or even that I existed.” This is Brand’s letter from an unknown woman named Lisa, who recounts her love for him that began when she was a 14-year-old schoolgirl and he a keyboard prodigy whose music filled the Viennese apartment complex where Lisa and her widowed mother also were tenants. Lisa begins studying music so that she may “enter [Brand’s] world.” When Lisa’s mother remarries, however, the family moves to Linz, a provincial Austrian town, thus interrupting what has become Lisa’s devotion to a man who scarcely notices her existence as he enjoys his success on the concert circuit and the fruits of that success: the bed partners that steadily stream into his bachelor apartment. Eighteen now, Lisa is courted by a handsome young lieutenant, an acquaintance of her stepfather, a military tailor. Upon his proposal of marriage, she blurts out as reality the fantasy of her engagement to Brand, and to make fantasy reality she forsakes home and family ties to return to Vienna on her own. She supports herself as a model in an exclusive dress shop; otherwise, her life is consumed with stalking Stefan Brand. Eventually he notices her and they become lovers; she is completely at his service and interested in him to the exclusion of herself. For his part, Brand is delighted by Lisa’s devotion and, even more, by her insights into his life and his music. However, he never asks her her name. An unexpected concert tour interrupts their affair; she sees him off at the train depot but doesn’t believe his promise that he will return to her in two weeks. Lisa knows he is sincere, but she also knows that his departure will snap for him the spell of their involvement; Brand’s unmitigated self-absorption will reassert itself, other girls will beam to the flame of his prodigious charm, and Lisa, already a memory at the point of his leavetaking, will pass into the amnesia that overtakes all the romantic connections in Stefan Brand’s existence. Lisa has their baby alone at the Catholic hospital. She fails to disclose Brand’s identity for their son’s birth certificate, intent on being one woman who doesn’t ask Brand for anything. She alludes to a rough patch in her life, the implication being that she supported herself and her son by prostitution. But Lisa has come back from her degradation and oblivion and, although still in love with Stefan Brand, has married the well positioned Johann Stauffer for the sake of her son. She has been completely honest with him about Brand, and it’s likely that he is genuinely in love with the beautiful, elegant woman that she has become. One night, with Stefan Jr. on vacation from boarding school and at home, Lisa and Johann attend an opera. Stefan Brand is also in attendance. Other theater goers gossip about the downturn in his career; Brand is alone, unaccompanied by a date. Since his disconnect with Lisa, Brand has been, both as artist and man, without his Muse; and because he does not even remember her, he has been incapable of defining or explaining the emptiness that has overtaken his life. In the darkened theater, staring into her balcony booth from his, he cannot take his eyes off her. Who is this beautiful woman? Lisa knows only that she feels her whole life slipping away—slipping back, that is, into the current of devotion for Brand that once was her life’s sum and substance. She leaves her husband at the theater to go home without disturbing him. Perhaps Stefan Jr. is the antidote to the renewed claim she finds the boy’s father suddenly and unexpectedly making again on her heart. Will all be lost? Outside, waiting for her carriage, she is approached by Stefan Brand. He can’t help thinking they have met. Her ambiguous remarks pique his interest. When the carriage pulls up, Johann is inside. He knows Lisa didn’t want this; he reminds his wife that there are such things as honor and decency. She has will to direct the course of her actions, he tells her; she doesn’t believe this. Fate has delivered Lisa back to her passion, her obsession. Johann promises to do everything he can to deter the romantic course of hers that threatens to shatter the foundation of all their lives. At the train depot, where they have entered a compartment that should have been quarantined after the removal of a passenger with typhus, Lisa says goodbye to her son, who is returning to school so that she may rejoin his father. The boy doesn’t mind because his separation from the mother he adores will last only a short time. “Two weeks!” he says. “Two weeks.” The train pulls away, and Lisa goes to Brand’s apartment to offer herself to Brand body and soul. He remembers her now—surely he remembers her now. But he doesn’t, and his flippancy makes Lisa feel cheap. She leaves. She is sick. She writes in the letter that her one regret is that Stefan never knew their wonderful son. She has enclosed a photograph of Stefan Jr., who, she explains, has died of typhus. The boy died alone, before his mother could reach the hospital; perhaps, she muses, God will be merciful and take her, too. God has been merciful. The handwritten letter abruptly stops. There is a typed message from a staff member at St. Catherine’s Hospital indicating the patient’s death from typhus. Stefan Brand, perhaps for the first time in his nonprofessional life, has lost his superficial aspect; he is overcome with grief. He asks the one constant in his life, his mute manservant, if he recalls the author of the letter. On a slip of paper from Brand’s desk the man writes “Lisa Berndl.” Brand now utters the name with which he had never addressed the woman who so adored him: “Lisa, Lisa.” It’s dawn. The escorts for the duel between him and Johann Stauffer have arrived. Stefan Brand, fully human at last, will face his death after all. (Stauffer’s reputation as “an excellent shot” leaves little doubt as to the outcome.) Before he enters the carriage, Brand looks back and sees, in his mind’s eye, the girl and the woman who loved him. His belated discovery of all he had comes simultaneous with his discovery of his having lost all of it.

Memory is the repository of our humanity. This is one of the great themes of Sophocles’ King Oedipus. Amnesia exacts the price of our humanity. In Ophüls’s film, Lisa’s letter to her beloved comes to embody memory, both hers and, ultimately, his as well. The letter transfers Lisa’s memory to Brand, replacing his amnesia. Stefan, then, is without memory; Lisa is all memory, even in the present where what she experiences is instantly transformed into memory: a point underscored by the fact that everything she experiences comes to us by way of her letter—her memory, in effect. In the end, through the anonymous letter—the film’s extended flashback—she consummates their relationship spiritually by giving Stefan, from the grave, her own memory. This is the redemption of Stefan Brand.

The letter also gives us Lisa’s memory. The letter’s human weight never leaves us because of the voiceover and the imagery conjured, as it were, from that voiceover. It’s the film, of course; but it’s also Ophüls, who has his own losses to weigh and consider.

The continuity of Lisa’s life is her memory of Stefan; even her love for Stefan Jr. is subsumed by her abiding, if at times dormant, love for his father. The object of this love is the Brand she has made over in her mind. It’s her idealized image of Brand that has sustained her emotionally. This is another way of saying that the unifying force of Lisa’s life, what makes her life “continuous,” is her imagination. Brand’s, on the other hand, is a discontinuous life. It’s a series of scenes: first, scenes of public attention and sexual conquest; later, scenes of abandonment and loneliness.

Self-absorbed, when he is about to seduce Lisa for the last time Brand glances into a mirror in order to adjust the handsomeness of his appearance, unaware that Lisa perceives him not according to what his mirror reflects but according to her mental image of him, her idealization of him. When she is with him, she is still with her memory of him; but, living in the moment, he has no memory of her, of himself, of them as a couple.

With a turn of the screw, we can posit their relationship in slightly different psychological terms. The Stefan Brand whom Lisa perceives and loves is a projection of her desire for continuity in her life. Ophüls’s Lisa isn’t Zweig’s masochistic creature; Ophüls has transformed Zweig’s concept of the character, demoting her taste for degradation and stressing instead her drive for integrity. The Hays Office helped. Unlike Zweig’s version, Ophüls’s Lisa isn’t given money by her lover. Prostitution isn’t a motif in her life, in effect an agency of continuity; instead, it’s one of several disruptions of that continuity that require the application of her imagination, her idealization of Brand, to remedy. For Stefan Brand, memory is something to shun or make a joke out of. There is an exquisite passage, in Vienna after Lisa has returned from Linz to find her Stefan, where the new couple take an imaginary trip together “visiting” sights throughout the world. Courtesy of Hale’s Tours, the two sit in a railway car as, hand-cranked like an old camera, different backdrops—painted panoramic landscapes—appear through the window. The two “visit” the Swiss Alps and many other places, but eventually they exhaust the existing repertoire. But both of them want the date to continue, that is to say, its romantic suspension of time amidst a pretended journey through space and time. Brand thus asks the operator to start over again from the first imaginary point of the worldwide tour; he says, “We’ll revisit the scenes of our youth.” This is an elegant throwaway line, a clever remark, a sophisticated joke—for Stefan Brand, that is. On the other hand, it’s no such thing for Lisa. Lisa has been describing to Stefan how she and her father, when she was a small girl, countered their limited circumstances by going on imaginary trips throughout the world. Her “trip” with Stefan thus echoes her “trips” with her father, forging an imaginative connection. Moreover, as the letter itself demonstrates, she is not simply filling the present with Stefan but creating—perhaps, to be Wordsworthian, half-creating—future memories that again will assist her quest for a continuous life. Every moment Stefan spends with Lisa is lightly taken, but every moment she spends with him attains a lifetime of importance. By encapsulating her love for Stefan, each moment contributes to her life’s continuity.

Zweig’s suicide is almost always described as a precipitous event; the course of the war would turn, after all, and Hitler would be defeated. However, I find Zweig’s ultimate act prescient. Before the Holocaust had anything more than just begun, his suicide echoes it in advance—something peculiarly possible because the Holocaust itself echoes past devastations of the Jewish community—and the Holocaust’s claim on the Six Million. Self-exiled to “safety,” Zweig can be seen as another one of the Six Million. History can thus be seen as scarcely affording Jews safety, whether in biblical times or with the pogroms in Europe in (from Zweig’s perspective) much more recent times. His suicide was, ironically, a way to assert his own will in a context where everything seemed to be out of his hands and to the detriment of Jews and other civilized elements of Europe. If nothing else, Zweig’s death ended the torment of his anxiety and uncertainty about the fate of Europe and of European Jewry.

Ophüls yearned for his own disrupted life to be patched together into some sort of continuity. For him, Lisa embodies this quest, much as Stefan Brand embodies both the disruptions and the forces obstructing the quest. Lisa’s quest for continuity, its agency her idealization of Brand and her imaginative memory, becomes the means by which Ophüls dreams himself, the European Jewish community to which he belongs, and indeed Europe itself whole again. Lisa’s memory is Ophüls’s own memory, and the passion that Lisa’s memory contains discloses the passion of Ophüls’s memory. The depth of Lisa’s passion her own unfortunate romantic experience cannot really sustain; it’s the depth of Ophüls’s very different passion that sustains it. It haunts us with what haunts Ophüls; its music is Ophüls’s lament for Zweig, for Lubitsch, for Europe, for European Jewry.

The allegorical masks that Ophüls employs reveal by concealing his deepest emotions. Such is one of art’s provinces and paradoxes.

Ophüls is legendarily famous for his tracking shots—continuously moving shots that formally express, in his use of them, the gracious imaginative elongation of time under the pressure that mortal consciousness exerts on humans, all of whom live in time. Letter from an Unknown Woman’s signature camera movement, however, is the panning, not the tracking, shot. Ophüls’s pans in this film—rotations of the camera from a fixed mounting—are brief, poised, constrained; their cumulative effect, lending enormous delicacy and irony to both Ophüls’s quest for continuity and lament for all he has lost, pointedly conveys a sense of imagination’s limits. At one and the same time we feel his yearning to be whole again—his yearning for Europe and for European Jewry to be whole again—and we feel his utter sense of futility. What’s lost is lost. Nothing can make his world whole or right again, ever. Nothing less than this can justify the immense sadness of this saddest of all Hollywood love stories. The love story gives us safe passage into an allegory of Max Ophüls’s heart, to which each slight camera movement makes its poignant contribution.

The actors also contribute. Joan Fontaine’s performance as Lisa is, of course, famous; it’s a marvel of sensitivity and sensibility, achieving perhaps its most perfect tenderness in scenes between mother and son. Lit by black-and-white cinematographer Franz Planer (credited here as “Frank” Planer, much as Ophüls is credited as Max “Opuls”) to make apparent the glow of Lisa’s idealizing spirit, Fontaine beautifully conveys the high degree of intelligence that can sometimes guide the dreamiest of dreamers. However, no fewer than four other performances in the film are also superb. Louis Jourdan is heartrending as Stefan Brand at the moment of his awakened humanity; until then, Jourdan’s entire performance is preparation for that moment. Mady Christians—her blacklisting a few years later would hound her to suicide—perhaps provides the film’s finest piece of acting; in a relatively small part, and at that one seen largely around the edges of the film, she is possessed of ordinary bourgeois dreams as Lisa’s highly sensible, materialistic mother. Lisa’s mother is her daughter writ small and compact. Marcel Journet is appallingly correct as Johann Stauffer, who dismisses as “romantic nonsense” his wife’s sense of having little power to direct the course of her life, and who perverts the spirit of “honor and decency” while hewing to their letter in his efficient pursuit of Stefan Brand’s legalized murder. A closeup of carriage wheels suggests Johann’s capacity to crush—the lethal egotism he hides behind a façade of impeccable manners. It also implies the inexorability of fate that his wife better grasps than he does. Finally, Leo B. Pessin is magnificent as Stefan Jr. Pessin makes this character so distinctive and interesting that the boy’s death matters on its own, not just as it reflects the loss that his biological parents feel. Let me add a sixth performance that’s exceptionally fine: Sonja Bryden’s as Madame Spitzer, who owns the dress salon where Lisa works in Vienna.

Vienna at the turn of the century: Ophüls would return to this setting for his first film once he had resettled in Europe, in France: La ronde (1950), from Arthur Schnitzler’s play Reigen (The Round Dance).

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2 thoughts on “LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (Max Ophüls, 1948)

  1. I SAW THE FILM IN SHANGHAI WHEN I WAS 13 OR 14. HAD NO IDEA WHO Max Ophüls WAS, I LOVED THE FILM INSTANTLY AND COULD NEVER FORGET IT. OVER THE YEARS, I HAD A HARD TIME LOCATING A VIDEO OR DVD OF THIS FILM (EVENTUALLY I FOUND A VIDEO). I AM MOST APPALLED TO FIND THAT NO ONE REALLY KNOWS OR HAS HEARD ABOUT THE FILM, EXCEPT IT WAS ONCE SHOWN IN SAN FRANCISCO DURING ITS FILM FESTIVAL. IT IS A THRILL TO READ YOUR ARTICLE AND I’M SO GLAD THAT IT IS RECOGNIZED AND NAMED AS ONE OF THE TEN BEST FILMS EVER MADE BY SIGHT & SOUND IN 2002, Max Ophüls DESERVES THE HONOR.

  2. This essay is a work of art unto itself. I saw this film twenty five years ago in my Literary Elements of Film class. It has haunted me since then and my efforts to locate it were as allusive as Lisa’s efforts to make Stefan remember. But TCM showed this movie last night and time’s hand and life experience did not impede my perception of it as being a masterpiece. I am going to have to find your book now–thank you for this brilliant piece.

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