‘Letter From An Unknown Woman’ illustrates the futility of childhood romantic fantasies

Forty 1940s Films

Letter From An Unknown Woman
Directed by Max Ophüls
Starring Louis Jordan and Joan Fontaine
USA, 86 min – 1948.

“Have you ever shuffled faces like cards, hoping to find one that lies somewhere, just over the edge of your memory?” 

In 1900s Vienna, a former concert pianist and notorious womanizer, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) returns home to find a mysterious letter. Stefan tells his manservant, John (Art Smith) to pack up, as he wants to avoid a morning duel with Johann Stauffer (Marcel Journet). When Stefan begins to read this letter, the duel escapes his mind. The letter details the unrequited love of Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine), a young woman who fell in love with Stefan, and had his son, without Stefan’s knowledge. The contents of Lisa’s letter spark Stefan to question the value of his life and his decision to run away from the duel.

Letter From An Unknown Woman

Letter From An Unknown Woman begins and ends with Stefan, but it is Lisa who tells the story. As a result of this, the film focuses less on the redemption of Stefan’s honor than it does on showing how his irresponsibility has ruined his life and Lisa’s (though she does not fully see it that way). Showing the consequences of Stefan’s carelessness then also illustrates the futility of the romantic fantasies that Lisa holds for Stefan.

Letter From An Unknown Woman - Lisa

Lisa has loved Stefan from afar for most of her life. Even when the two spend a night together, she is aware that Stefan will never be able to commit. He leaves for Milan and she remains in Vienna. The only happy occurrence is that Lisa gives birth to Stefan’s child (named Stefan Jr.). Rather than letting the nuns find Stefan and tell him of the child’s birth, Lisa decides to raise Stefan Jr alone. Thus, her fantasies of being with Stefan have come true and he has left her with something to remember him by.

Letter From An Unknown Woman

Unfortunately, the fantasies of romance and “Stefan’s world” that she had as a child do not hold the same weight in adulthood. Even though Lisa grows older, her love for Stefan remains the same. It is both a childish fantasy that he will remember and love her back, as well as the understanding that a man of Stefan’s character will never allow himself to be cared for. Longevity in a relationship is not possible for him. The true tragedy then lies not in Stefan’s inability to take responsibility for his actions (as making Stefan the protagonist originally suggests), but in the fact that Lisa cannot forget Stefan and loses everything because of this.

- Karen Bacellar


By Karen Bacellar

Karen Bacellar is a writer/director based in New York. Two of her short films, Act Like Me and Evelyn Victorious are on the festival circuit. She holds an MA in Film Studies from University College London and a BFA in Film & TV Production from NYU Tisch. She also likes to imagine herself as the reincarnation of Vivien Leigh...but only on Sundays.

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