In Vienna in 1900, Stefan Brand must face a duel the following morning. He has no intention of defending his honor however and plans to flee the city when he notices that he has received a letter from someone in his past. A struggling concert pianist at the time he met Lisa Berndle when she was just a teenager living next door. Brand has had many women in his life however and unaware that Lisa is genuinely in love with him, forgets all about her. They meet again but he only vaguely remembers ever having met her. Unknown to him she bears his child and eventually marries a man who knows of her past but loves her very much. When she runs into Brand many years later her love for him resurfaces and she is prepared to abandon her son and husband for him. Tragedy follows.Written by
In the original movie the main male character is not a piano player but a unnamed writer, who is referenced as "R." ("R" as in "Romanschriftsteller", which means "Novel writer" in German). In the movie his first name is Stefan, just like the writer of the original story, Stefan Zweig. See more »
While most signs in the movie are written correctly in German, since the movie is set in Austria, parts of them are in English, e.g. Stefan Brand's concert flyer, which says "Concert Program" instead of "Konzertprogramm". See more »
Suddenly in that one moment, everything was in danger, everything I thought was safe. Somewhere out there were your eyes... and I knew I couldn't escape them. It was like the first time I saw you. The years between were melting away.
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'Letter from an Unknown Woman' is the first Max Ophüls I have seen. The film certainly gave me a lot of things to think about. In a nutshell, I thought the screenplay and plot written by Ophüls and Howard E. Koch which is based on the novella of the same name is good, but what makes the film special is Ophüls' direction and choice of camera movements and visual rhythm.
The screenplay is not something that completely blew me away. There are a lot of things that felt familiar due to my acquaintance with some other films belonging to the label of 'melodrama' made during the 40s, 50s and 60s. The film does give off the familiar vibe of inevitable tragedy right from the early scenes. The screenplay for the most part works, but there are moments which felt a bit weak. The strength of the film lies in the way Ophüls beautifully gives us the elaborate sequence of Lisa's ever growing infatuation for Stefan, it is believable and sweet, Ophüls doesn't shy away from the bitter eventualities of a doomed infatuation,etc. Ophüls also somewhat handles the potentially sexist element in the film well and gives the character of Lisa growth and strength as she gradually matures. Although initially her life seems to completely revolve around the man and she is shown to pretty much worship him, but later she gets to take a bold decision to uphold her self-respect which undercuts the lack of layers in her character in the initial part of the film. But there are certain elements in the screenplay that felt a bit weak, for example there is a scene where one character departs via a train with the promise that he/she will return after two weeks, we then suddenly jump to another scene with a jump in the timeline which felt rushed and not seamless. There is another railway station sequence which comes later in the film which does a callback to the previous railway station scene, but the scene ends with a bit of a foreshadowing of what's to come and it felt a bit too on the nose, and heavy handed.
For me the best part of the film is Ophüls' sophisticated use of the camera. He composes and choreographs a lot of scenes in a beautifully symmetrical fashion. Music plays an important role in the narrative as Stefan is a musician and it is his musical prowess that initially attracts Lisa to him even before she has seen him in person. I believe Ophüls' intention was using a symmetry that is found in classical musical pieces in the way he stages movement and composes frames by referencing,mirroring and juxtaposing earlier scenes. Apart from the aforementioned railway station scene, every other scene involving symmetrical touches work. Some examples of this visual symmetry is the sequence in Linz which starts with the dialogue being muted out by the noise of a horse drawn cart and ends with the dialogue being muted out again by the marching band playing the 'Radetzky March'. Another brilliant pair of symmetric scenes are the stair case scenes where the camera captures movement from the same position in both scenes but with completely different perspectives. Even the first and last shot of the film are beautifully symmetric and bookend the film very well. There is a famous scene in an amusement park where Stefan and Lisa have a conversation on a virtual train ride which pretty much succinctly summarises the theme of the film which is how love can be an illusion just like the illusion of visiting different cities and countries that they were enjoying with the ride.
Joan Fontaine is brilliant. In the initial part of the film, she plays the adorable girl next door. Although she plays a simple woman who pretty much thinks about nothing but catching the attention of Stefan, but she is so sweet, that one can't help but like her in spite of the thin nature of character at the beginning of the film. However thankfully she does go through a transformation and becomes this regal character belonging to high society who takes bold decisions and she goes through this transformation effortlessly. Although the character of Stefan is not the most likable character, but Louis Jourdan emotes a sense of disillusionment and dissatisfaction extremely well which makes us care a bit about him too so that Stefan doesn't just become the stereotypical handsome jerk.
'Letter from an Unknown Woman' by Max Ophüls is a very stylishly made film. Ophüls' style of camera movements and scene composition is very musical in its rhythm and symmetry. The storyline itself was something the likes of which I am familiar with, but it is Max Ophüls' directorial style that impressed me and I certainly intend to explore his filmography further.
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