“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead.”
Thus begins the letter Stefan Brand opens in 1900 in Vienna, on the eve of a duel where he will lose his honor if he flees and his life if he attends.
Though Stefan has little regard for his life these days, he has never had any regard for his honor. He has no time to read a lengthy letter, especially written in a hand he doesn’t recognize.
“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead. I have so much to tell you—and perhaps very little time. Will I ever send it? I don’t know.”
Could you resist such an opening?
Fueled by cigarettes and cognac-laced coffee, Stefan reads through the night, discovering a fantastic tale of unrequited love.
The letter tells the story of Lisa Berndle, a young girl with a childish infatuation with Stefan Brand, a talented pianist. Lisa falls in love with his playing, which she can hear late at night through the walls of her apartment. Though still a young man, Stefan is much older and sees the shy Lisa only once. His talent and looks bring a parade of women to his door.
It is perhaps understandable that he would not remember her as a child.
Yet even after her family moves from Vienna, she never forgets him, and even turns down a respectable marriage proposal because her heart belongs to Stefan, even if he does not know her name.
Years later they meet in Vienna and spend a wonderful night together. Stefan is everything Lisa knew he would be—attentive, charming, and romantic. Yet Stefan must leave the next morning for a musical tour, and he soon forgets her in the sea of new woman clamoring for his attention.
Until the letter, he never knew that the woman loved him so deeply, or that their wonderful night together resulted in a child.
He still does not remember her.
Years later, they meet again and he has a vague recollection of her and Lisa is prepared to throw her entire world away—her caring husband, the stable life she has built for her now ten-year-old son—for Stefan.
He lures her away with romantic words and promises. Lisa thinks it is true love, but for Stefan, he is executing his standard seduction routine.
He has had hundreds of romantic nights with a beautiful stranger.
Lisa has had just one.
It is nearly impossible to develop an entirely original plot line, but I believe Letter From An Unknown Woman manages it, and it is worth watching for that alone. It is a gloomy tale of an extraordinary unrequited love. Lisa bears Stefan’s child and pines for him her entire life, and Stefan barely remembers her face and—even after the letter—cannot recall her name.
Joan Fonatine walks a tightrope as Lisa—we have to sympathize with a woman who has not outgrown a childhood fantasy and is too naïve to recognize her lover for the womanizer he is. Veer too far one way and Lisa is so air headed that you want to shake her and tell her to wake up. Veer too far the other and Lisa could take on the air of a celebrity stalker.
Fontaine plays it beautifully. There are shades of her character in Rebecca here—a trusting younger woman, a mysterious older man. But unlike Maxim in Rebecca, here Stefan never redeems himself—he is the callous cad the audience always knew him to be.
When she finally realizes that she means nothing to Stefan—that he doesn’t even remember her—the heartbreak is palpable.
But the film does not play him as a villain—that would be too easy—but as a man who had everything come too easy to him too early in life. He does not appreciate his female admirers, just as he does not appreciate his talent.
The tragedy of the film is that Lisa sees too clearly the life they will never have together, and Stefan never sees it at all.
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