The key to Max Ophüls’s Letter From an Unknown Woman lies, simply enough, in its title. No matter how rapturous or romantic the proceedings get, the title of the film will nag at viewers’ minds. We know what is coming, even if we’re not fully conscious that we know.
Letter From an Unknown Woman takes place mostly in Vienna around the turn of the 20th century. It tells the story of a love affair between a young woman, Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine), and a concert pianist, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan).
When the film begins, Stefan is coming home in a carriage. He appears dissolute and wasted. He is to fight a duel in the morning, and he’s more upset that he’ll have to get up early than he is about possibly being killed.
In his apartment, a letter awaits him from Lisa, his old love. In the letter she recalls the stages of her life with him, beginning with girlish obsession, moving on to a more mature love affair, and finally … the end of it all.
Through it all we see Stefan, a brilliant and temperamental musician, experience his own journey of love with Lisa, albeit a more selfish one.
Like his fellow German expatriate director Douglas Sirk, Ophüls has a love of beautiful costumes, sumptuous set design, and moments of beautiful whimsy. One scene in Letter From an Unknown Woman begins with Lisa and Stefan sitting in a train compartment, having a conversation. The moving background outside the train’s window looks almost ridiculously fake until the full scene is revealed to the viewer. They are at a carnival, and an old man on a bicycle is making the painted backgrounds scroll past their window. He even has a wooden train whistle he blows as they stop at each new “station.”
Letter From an Unknown Woman is based on a story by Stefan Zweig, with a screenplay by Howard Koch. It’s a meditation on love, memory, and loss that I really liked, but didn’t completely love, although I suspect that repeating viewings might reveal added layers.