Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948 film)

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948 film)

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Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948
1948 in film
The year 1948 in film involved some significant events.-Events:* Laurence Olivier's Hamlet becomes the first British film to win the American Academy Award for Best Picture.-Top grossing films : After theatrical re-issue- Awards :...

) is a film directed by Max Ophüls
Max Ophüls
Maximillian Oppenheimer — known as Max Ophüls — was an influential German-born film director who worked in Germany , France , the United States , and France again...

. It was based on the novella
Letter from an Unknown Woman
Letter from an Unknown Woman is a novella by Stefan Zweig. Published in 1922, it tells the story of an author who, while reading a letter written by a woman he does not remember, gets glimpses into her life story.- Film :...

 of the same name, which was written by Stefan Zweig
Stefan Zweig
Stefan Zweig was an Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer. At the height of his literary career, in the 1920s and 1930s, he was one of the most famous writers in the world.- Biography :...

. The film stars Joan Fontaine
Joan Fontaine
Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland , known professionally as Joan Fontaine, is a British American actress. She and her elder sister Olivia de Havilland are two of the last surviving leading ladies from Hollywood of the 1930s....

, Louis Jourdan, Mady Christians
Mady Christians
Marguerita Maria "Mady" Christians was an Austrian actress who achieved a successful acting career in theatre and film, in the United States until she was blacklisted during the McCarthy period....

 and Marcel Journet.

In 1992, Letter from an Unknown Woman was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry
National Film Registry
The National Film Registry is the United States National Film Preservation Board's selection of films for preservation in the Library of Congress. The Board, established by the National Film Preservation Act of 1988, was reauthorized by acts of Congress in 1992, 1996, 2005, and again in October 2008...

 by the Library of Congress
Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is the research library of the United States Congress, de facto national library of the United States, and the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. Located in three buildings in Washington, D.C., it is the largest library in the world by shelf space and...

 as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Plot summary

The film is set mainly in Vienna in the early 1900s. Pianist Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) arrives home a few hours before he is due to fight with a champion duellist, a challenge he has every intention of evading by leaving the city. Before leaving, he reads a letter received that night that begins with "by the time you read this I may be dead."

The story then switches to the point of view of the letter-writer, Lisa (Joan Fontaine
Joan Fontaine
Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland , known professionally as Joan Fontaine, is a British American actress. She and her elder sister Olivia de Havilland are two of the last surviving leading ladies from Hollywood of the 1930s....

), as it goes back in time to when she was a teenage girl living in a Vienna apartment complex. She is fascinated by a new tenant, prodigious musician Stefan, and his variety of fabulous instruments, including a harp and a piano. Stefan is a concert pianist making a name for himself through his energetic performances, and Lisa becomes obsessed with him, staying up late to listen to him playing, sneaking into his apartment and admiring his very good looks from a distance. Despite this, they only interact once and Stefan takes little notice of her.

One day, Lisa's mother (Mady Christians
Mady Christians
Marguerita Maria "Mady" Christians was an Austrian actress who achieved a successful acting career in theatre and film, in the United States until she was blacklisted during the McCarthy period....

) announces her marriage to a wealthy and respectable gentleman. He lives in Linz and tells Lisa that they will all move there. Lisa is saddened and initially resists. She is eventually dragged along, but runs away from the railway station back to the apartment. She is let in by the porter and knocks on Stefan's door. When no one answers she waits outside for him to return. He eventually returns early in the morning with a woman. Lisa observes from a distance and is distraught, and realizing the situation, she joins her mother and new stepfather in Linz.

In Linz she is transformed into a respectable woman and courted by a young military officer from a good family. He eventually proposes to Lisa, but she turns him down, saying that she is in love with someone else living in Vienna and is even engaged to be married with him. The young man is confused and heartbroken, but accepts her situation. Lisa's mother and stepfather (who had been trying to set up the marriage) demand to know why she didn't accept the proposal. "I told him the truth", replies Lisa.

Many years later, Lisa is estranged from her parents and works in Vienna as a dress model. She waits outside Stefan's window every night, hoping to be noticed, and one night he sees her. He doesn't recognize Lisa but finds himself strangely drawn to her and they go on a long, romantic date that ends with them making love. Soon after Stefan leaves for a concert in Milan, promising to contact her again soon. He doesn't, however, and Lisa eventually gives birth to their child. She doesn't tell Stefan, wanting to be the "one woman who never asked you for anything."

Around 10 years later, Lisa is married to an older man named Johann (Marcel Journet) ("despite him knowing the situation between us") and has named her son Stefan. While out at the opera, she spies Stefan, now no longer a top-billed musician who is burned out and rarely plays anymore. Feeling uneasy, she departs during the performance only to be met by Stefan while waiting for her carriage. Stefan does not remember her but once again is oddly drawn to her. Lisa is still uncomfortable with this, not wanting to anger her husband, and when her carriage arrives, she is met by a clearly vexed Johann.

A few nights later and against her husband's wishes, Lisa travels to Stefan's apartment. She knocks on his door and is greeted by the mute servant. He beckons her in and goes to fetch Stefan. Stefan arrives and is delighted to see her. However, despite a seemingly illuminating conversation about Stefan's past life and his motivations for giving up music, Stefan still does not recognize who Lisa really is. Distraught, realizing that Stefan never felt any love for her at all, Lisa leaves. On her way out she meets the servant and the two exchange a long glance.

As her letter ends, Lisa is in a hospital. Their son has died of typhus and she too is gravely ill. Her letter appears to trail off mid sentence, and a card from the hospital explains that Lisa has died and that, as she called out your name right before, this letter was probably meant for you. In shock, Stefan imagines back to the three times in his life that he met, but failed to recognize, Lisa. "Did you remember her?" he asks his servant. The servant nods and writes down her full name, Lisa Berndle, on a piece of paper.

Stefan departs still in shock. As he leaves his building, he sees the ghostly image of a teenage Lisa open the door for him, the same way she once did when he first noticed her all those years ago. Outside, a carriage awaits him alongside that of his opponent, revealed to be Lisa's husband, Johann. The implication is that Stefan finally intends to take responsibility for his actions and will let himself be killed in the duel.

Adaptation notes

The film was adapted from the original Stefan Zweig novella
A novella is a written, fictional, prose narrative usually longer than a novelette but shorter than a novel. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Awards for science fiction define the novella as having a word count between 17,500 and 40,000...

 by screenwriter Howard Koch
Howard Koch
Howard Koch is the name of:* Howard Koch , American screenwriter* Howard W. Koch , American film and TV director, producer* Hawk Koch , American film producer...

. The film is mostly faithful to the book, though featuring minor divergences. The male protagonist in the book is simply referred to (once) as 'R', and is a novellist rather than a musician. The film renames him Stefan Brand (referencing Zweig, who also loans his name to the protagonist's infant son, also unnamed in the original source material). The "unknown woman" receives no name in the book; in the film she is called Lisa Brendle (a noted quirk of Ophüls, having his female characters names' starting with an L). Fernand, a relative of Lisa's mother and eventual husband, is turned into the completely unrelated "Mr. Kastner", with the family moving to Linz
Linz is the third-largest city of Austria and capital of the state of Upper Austria . It is located in the north centre of Austria, approximately south of the Czech border, on both sides of the river Danube. The population of the city is , and that of the Greater Linz conurbation is about...

 rather than Innsbruck
- Main sights :- Buildings :*Golden Roof*Kaiserliche Hofburg *Hofkirche with the cenotaph of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor*Altes Landhaus...

. John, the servant, retains his name, but in the film, he is mute.

The novel's sexual content is quite implicit, but because of censorship, the movie adaptation further dims it. In the book, the "unknown woman" spends three nights with the writer (rather than one) before his departure. She only meets him one more time, many years later, at the opera, at which she promptly loses her present lover in favor of spending a fourth night with the writer. At the conclusion of this, she is humiliated when he mistakes her for a prostitute, and rushes off, never to see him again. The movie adaptation splits these into two separate encounters (first meeting him at the opera, and then rushing off humiliated from his house), and ignores another sexual encounter.

Further divergences include a more prolonged "first encounter" between the two lovers (taking them through stagecoaches, fairs and ball rooms rather than simply cutting to the long-waited sexual encounter), revealing the disease that kills Stefan Jr. and Lisa to be typhus
Epidemic typhus is a form of typhus so named because the disease often causes epidemics following wars and natural disasters...

and ignoring Lisa's tradition of sending Brand white roses every birthday. At the start of the novel, Brand has just turned 41 (and forgotten about his birthday). This is significant because the absence of white roses confirms Lisa's death at the time of reading.

The most noted divergence is a structural change: there is no duel in the original story, nor is there a character such as Johann. The "unknown woman" from the book never marries, but lives off a series of lovers who remain unnamed and mostly unintrusive. Because of this, the protagonist's actions offend no one in particular. In the film, Brand is challenged to a duel, which he initially plans to ditch. The finale reveals the contestant to be Johann, who demands satisfaction over Lisa's affair. Having read Lisa's letter, Brand boldly accepts the duel and walks into it, his fate uncertain. This redeeming action has no literary equivalent. In fact, Brand's literary equivalent can only faintly recall Lisa after reading the letter, and there's no significant event past this.

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