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
The film was adapted from the original Stefan Zweig novella by screenwriter Howard Koch. The film is mostly faithful to the book, though featuring minor divergences. The most noted divergence is a structural change: there is no duel in the original story, nor is there a character such as Johann. SPOILER: The "unknown woman" from the book never marries, but lives off a series of lovers who remain unnamed and mostly unintrusive. 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 »
Oh, if only you could've recognized what was always yours, could've found what was never lost. If only...
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Early on, Fontaine speaks of being born twice, once when you come into the world, once when you consciously actualize the beginning of your journey. I'm totally paraphrasing, but that's the gist. I was intrigued by this theoretical little idealistic theme. Director Max Ophuls deemed love as much a blight as a miracle, and this syrupy but highly sophisticated drama is one of the finest expressions of his refined aesthetic balance. It's composed of three extended episodes, each from another time in the heroine's life. This gives it a format resembling Ophuls' great Le Plaisir.
"By the time you read this letter, I may be dead . If this reaches you, you will know how I became yours when you didn't know who I was or even that I existed." As follows the letter that gives this most famous of Ophuls' American films its title. Joan Fontaine's words come to us from the brink of death. The letter's receiver is Louis Jourdan, the object of Lisa's failing affection, a man who has been blind to her passion, and whom this letter wishes both to alleviate from this state plus to blame him for it. Simultaneously, the letter is also conveyed to us, as Jourdan's reading of it instigates a single flashback, whereby we follow the content as narrative images that seem to spring from Fontaine's perspective, abbreviated periodically by her voice-over, which preoccupies the screen. In jeopardy here is only one thing: her existence has been unrecognized, a truth that rather literally kills her. This is why she returns to haunt the screen; her posthumous appeal for acknowledgement.
Fontaine overdramatically combines the intensity of her daydream with her feeling of reality: "As hard as it may be for you to realize, from that moment on I was in love with you. Quite consciously, I began to prepare myself for you." There are few characters in film history who so thoroughly exemplify the thrust of melodrama. This film, consequently, appears to stem its genre less from formula than from Lisa's actual core, hazarded, not unlike that of the unfortunate leading ladies of opera, on curtains that rise and fall, until they don't rise anymore. Film, naturally, unlike opera, is a form of renaissance, where images can return to preoccupy us from a far-flung past. The melodrama of this film makes the most of this.
Staircases. Sets on multiple levels. Episodic and sectional construction of stories. Historical recreations of continental eras and societies. Entertainment spectacles: the carriage ride with unrolling pictures. Scenes at opera houses. The presence of tradesmen and servants as supporting players in camera movements. Irony. Ophuls' signature panning shots are much more flexible in this film. Ophuls' characters frequently go up or down staircases. The pans can quietly tilt upward or down, keeping the character in the focal point of the composition while crossing the staircase. The staircases here are merely series of short steps, leading from one floor to another. The transitions and pans are likewise minute and elegant. Characters also often move around within a location, such as the businessman incessantly fussing around the train station. Ophuls' camera pans from side to side with this man, as he moves impatiently through the crowd. Fontaine's dreamscape is exposed for us, developed into the geographic web of a city where the sole bystander that matters is Jourdan.
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