Letter from an Unknown Woman
Directed by Max Ophüls
Written by Howard Koch; story by Stefan Zweig
#213 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
Stefan Brand: And I don’t even know where you live. Promise me you won’t vanish.
Lisa Berndl: I won’t be the one who vanishes.
For me, the outstanding aspect of this film is the beautiful visuals. Unfortunately, I was reduced to watching it in a very dodgy print on YouTube. How could they let this classic go out of print?
The setting is Vienna at the turn of the last century. As the movie opens, handsome, world-weary Stefan Brand is returning from a night on the town with a couple of friends. They are to serve as seconds in a duel he has been challenged to fight. It seems that this is a frequent occurrence for the womanizing Brand. The friends warn him his opponent is an excellent shot. They agree to pick him up in three hours.
As he enters his apartment, Brand tells his valet to pack his belongings for an indefinite stay abroad. He plans to be gone within the hour. But the valet hands him a mysterious letter in an unknown hand beginning “By the time you read this, I may be dead …”. As he starts to read the letter, we hear the voice of the writer, Lisa Brendle (Joan Fontaine) explaining who she is and what she has been to Brand. We segue into flashback.
It seems that as a young teenager Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) became intrigued by Brand when she saw movers hauling his piano up to his apartment next to hers. Once she glimpses the pianist’s handsome face, she is a goner. She spends years mooning over him from a distance. She builds her life around this stranger, who does not know she exists, to the extent that she considers herself “not free” to accept a marriage proposal.
Lisa grows up to be a beauty and begins working as a dressmaker’s mannequin. She continues to spend all her evenings hanging around Brand’s apartment building in hopes of seeing him. Then she does and her troubles really begin. Brand is attracted and the two spend several evenings together. Then he goes on a concert tour, promising to return in a couple of weeks. Naturally, she finds herself pregnant and does not see the cad again for several years.
Fate smiles on Lisa and she marries a wealthy man who loves her despite her past, her son, and her continuing obsession for Brand. Is Lisa satisfied? Nooooo ….
If you believe that there is one deep, redemptive and eternal love out there for everyone and that this love can be discovered listening to a piano through an apartment wall, have I got a movie for you! At least the scriptwriter believed these things and the story plays out as Stefan Brand’s tragedy. The tragedy is that he was unaware of this love until too late. If he had known, he could have saved himself from becoming the shallow wastrel that he is.
Unfortunately, I cannot help but see the story as Lisa’s tragedy, stemming perhaps from some type of mental illness. Or perhaps it was just the times and gender expectations that led to her downfall. At any rate, she seems like the kind of person that would develop into a stalker in a more modern context.
All that said, the acting is all very good and Ophuls makes the whole thing look lushly romantic. I rated the film very highly on my previous viewing. It was very hard to appreciate the visuals on YouTube. If the story appeals, you will likely love it.