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Film / Letter from an Unknown Woman

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"If only you could have shared those moments, if only you could have recognized what was always yours, could have found what was never lost. If only..."

"By the time you read this I may be dead."

Based on the 1922 novella of the same name, Letter from an Unknown Woman is a 1948 film directed by Max Ophuls, starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan.

Pianist Stefan Brand comes home one night a few hours from a duel in which he has no interest in participating. Before he prepares to leave the city, he receives a letter that begins with the above quote.

The letter is told by his former neighbor, Lisa Berndl, who as a young girl, fell in love with him. It follows her life in Vienna, and her desire for him to love her, but it's painful, unrequited love. She finally gets the chance to be with him, and has his child, but he soon forgets who she is and is unaware of his son.

Years pass, and Lisa is now married with a respectable man who treats her son as his own, but a chance meeting at the opera with Stefan has Lisa uncontrollably wanting him. But when she goes to his house, he doesn't even remember her. Lisa realizes that not only is her life tragic, but so is Stefan's; he had love at his fingertips, but let it slip by.

A Chinese edition of this film came out in 2004.

This film provides examples of:

  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Lisa's letter to Stefan provides the narration for most of the story, making the entire movie this.
  • Book Ends: The film begins and ends with Stefan being escorted to/from his home in a carriage.
  • Canon Foreigner: The character of Johann Stauffer had no literary counterpart.
  • The Casanova: Stefan. Although he himself seems to think it's Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.
  • Costume Porn: In Vienna, Lisa works as a model showing off dresses for the elite people who can afford them. This means we see a lot of beautiful dresses of that period.
  • Death by Despair: With Stefan Jr's death, and Stefan being unable to recognize his love, Lisa doesn't have much to live for and so it's implied that she dies this way.
  • Downer Ending: Lisa and Stefan Jr. are dead from typhus. Stefan never returned Lisa's love for him while she was alive, and by the time he realises how much his brief time with her meant to him and especially to her, it's too late. Her grief-stricken husband, Johann, has challenged Stefan to a pistol duel and is said to be an excellent shot.
  • Duel to the Death: As the film opens, Stefan has been challenged to a pistol duel by a man who, according to Stefan's seconds, is an excellent shot (and, as the offended party in the duel, he will shoot first). By the end of the film, we learn that the other duellist is Lisa's widowed husband, Johann, who knew of her love for Stefan and blames him for her death.
  • Flower Motifs: Stefan, on his first date with Lisa, gets her one white rose which represents Lisa's pure, unadulterated love. Once she finds Stefan again, she brings him a bundle of white roses so he can remember her, but alas, he doesn't until after she has already died.
  • Framing Device: Lisa's letter frames the entire film.
  • The Gay '90s: Most of the story takes place during this time period.
  • Love at First Note: Heavily implied to be the main reason why Lisa is so drawn to Stefan. His genius for music is the one thing about him that seems to hint at a deeper character. When he confesses to her late in the movie that he's given it up, it's the beginning of her disillusionment with him.
  • Love Hurts: Stefan never remembers Lisa, and once he does find out about their relationship, it's too late. Lisa dies and Stefan Jr also dies of Typhus.
  • Love Martyr: Lisa spends her adolescence pining for Stefan, who doesn't even know she exists. When they meet again as adults, they spend a romantic night together, but Stefan almost immediately forgets about her, while she ends up bearing his child. And when they meet for a third time nearly ten years later, Stefan still doesn't remember Lisa; any claims to the contrary are just part of his seduction routine. She leaves, heartbroken, and dies of typhus within a few weeks.
  • Named by the Adaptation:
    • In the 1922 novella the film's based on, the male protagonist in the book is simply referred to (once) as 'R', in the film he's given the name Stefan Brand (as a reference to the film's director Zweig, who also lends his name to the protagonist's infant son, also unnamed in the original source material).
    • The "unknown woman" is unnamed in the book; in the film, she's called Lisa Berndle (a quirk of Ophüls is having his female characters names' starting with an L).
  • Old Retainer: Stefan's servant, John, has worked for him for years, and he knew all along that Lisa was the woman that had loved Stefan for so many years.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Lisa doesn't have any problems with sneaking glances at Stefan's romantic encounters as he enters with them to the apartment building, and she sneaks into his house as well. Later, she waits outside his apartment, hoping he'll notice her. He eventually does.
  • Source Music: Stefan plays Il Sospiro by Franz Liszt, and it's a piece that follows him throughout the film.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Stefan and Lisa's love is doomed from the start, partly by Stefan's inability to fully reciprocate Lisa's feelings and partly by circumstances keeping them apart for years at a time.
  • Tall, Dark, and Handsome: Stefan.
  • Uncertain Doom: Audiences don't see the outcome of the duel between Stefan and Johann but Stefan mentions his opponent to be an excellent shot so he has the odds against his favour.
  • Unrelated in the Adaptation: Fernand, a relative of Lisa's mother and eventual husband, is turned into the completely unrelated "Mr. Kastner".