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Love me three times: time and narrative in letter from an unknown woman.

"Vienna about 1900." A dark and rainy night. A horse-drawn carriage stops on a wet cobblestone street, and out steps a dashing fellow in top hat and coat. He shrugs off the concern of the two men inside, who tell him they'll be back in three hours at 5 am to pick him up. The man smiles: "I don't mind so much being killed ... but you know how hard it is for me to get up in the morning. Goodnight." He walks away.


A typical Hollywood film might take ten to fifteen minutes to establish the characters and setting. Max Ophuls' Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) is particularly accelerated. Cut to a two-shot of the men inside the carriage. They speak the fellow's given name: "Stefan". They ponder whether Stefan really intends to fight a duel that means certain death. Cut to the outside of the apartment building as Stefan goes in. Offscreen the concierge asks who is at the door. Stefan answers with his surname: "Brandt". Stefan Brandt is met at the door by his manservant, John. Stefan tells John to have a cab ready for his escape in an hour. He has no intention of fighting the duel (clearly the reason for his earlier wit). "Honor is a luxury only gentlemen can afford," he says. (Stefan is thus at best a coward and at worst a scoundrel, the viewer concludes.) A letter arrived in the night. He is struck by its first words: "By the time you read this letter, I may be dead ..." He sits to read. He learns that the author once lived across the hall from him. That later she became his lover, and that she has been in love with Stefan her entire adult life. And Stefan has no idea who is she. The film dissolves to her story. Lisa Berndle's letter appears entirely unrelated to Stefan's predicament, but by the end of the film Lisa's story justifies Stefan's about-face and he goes to the duel.

Following V.F Perkins, critics have noted three distinct timelines in Letter. Alan Williams categorises those timelines as:

1) the 10-12 year span of Lisa's story

2) the three hours of Lisa's narration

3) the film's 85 minutes running time (47).

The three hours of Lisa's narration is also the time between when Stefan comes home at 2 am and when the carriages arrive to take him to the duel at 5 am. Extrapolating from Perkins and Williams, Letter's three timelines reflect three distinct narratives:

1) Lisa's love of Stefan (A story)

2) Stefan and the duel (B story)

3) the narrative of the film (plot)

It should be clear that Stefan's point of view is not the same as Lisa's, or there would be no need for her letter and everything between them would have ended happily ever after in "Vienna about 1890". But Stefan's point of view is not Ophuls', nor is it the spectator's. The framing device of the "B Story" is not the "plot". Unlike Stefan, the viewer knows that Lisa Berndle is the unknown woman, knows that she is the same person whom Stefan continually forgets. Conversely, Stefan knows more than the viewer. Lisa, writing to Stefan of her marriage, says, "You know who my husband is". But the viewer does not yet know at this point in the plot, and likely has not yet figured out Johann Stauffer's role in the tale. The plot is not merely the intermingling of Lisa and Stefan's points of view.


Consider how time reflects the differing points of view. When Stefan comes home, he asks John for a coffee and cognac, and tells him to have a cab downstairs in an hour for his escape. John gives him the letter, and Stefan sits in his study and begins to read. About an hour of screen time later, Stefan finishes the letter and a carriage rumbles outside his window. But it is not the cab. It is his seconds to take him to the duel. Three hours of story have elapsed. The ringing from an off-screen clock tower confirms it is indeed the appointed hour of 5 am. It is remarkably disorienting for a spectator. It might be the cinematic equivalent of lying down for a little catnap and awaking after a long slumber.

What happened to the escape cab? Did it ever arrive? John does reappear with the drinks about twenty minutes of screen time after Stefan requested it. He is never seen returning with news of the cab's arrival. The viewer does not know if Stefan merely dismissed it offscreen, or he was too engrossed to care. It is equally possible that John does not call the cab, and acting as Stefan's "guardian angel" senses the effect Lisa's letter will have on him and deliberately keeps him reading so he will be compelled to go to the duel. (That John could "know" the effect of Lisa's letter is no more prescient than Lisa' "knowing" that her letter will ultimately unite them in death.) Or acting less as an agent of fate, John might merely decide after he brings Stefan the cognac, seeing how engrossed he is in the letter, not to call the cab. Letter must mean it to be ambiguous. There is no definite answer. Yet all possible interpretations share to downplay Stefan's own choice. Here Letter's plot diverges from Stefan's story.


Practicality (and sanity) necessitates the different time I frames between the years covered by Lisa's letter and the time it takes Stefan to read it. (No filmmaker has yet to tackle a 10 year movie.) What is striking, however, is the difference between the running time of the film and the three hours that comprise the framework. Why is the film not more or less real-time? And if a three hour melodrama might be unlikely for the period, why does it take over two hours of story time for Stefan I to read the letter? Stefan Zweig's original novella is easily I poured over in an hour, and includes every word of its heroine's twelve page letter. So transfixed by its tale he barely acknowledges John bringing in the coffee and cognac requested earlier. It seems unlikely that he has spent the time rereading the letter given his reaction when he reaches its postscript from the nuns near the end of the film that Lisa died. Indeed assuming the film's letter is about the same length, the time it would take Stefan to carefully read Lisa's every word would be perfect to then escape in that cab he never takes, the viewer never sees, and the film never again mentions.

In a sense, these questions might not matter. Narrative compression is a hallmark of almost all storytelling, not just Hollywood classical cinema. Yet Stefan's story unfolds over such a specific period of time--to continually insist and reinforce that it is precisely three hours, that the cab is arriving in one hour, but that after an hour of screen time it's his seconds who have arrived--further reinforces that Stefan and the viewer do not, cannot, share the same points of view. Stefan's experience of reading the letter is not the same as the viewer's watching the film.

Ophuls and screenwriter Howard Koch made many changes in adapting Zweig's novella, most notably expanding the framework with the addition of the duel. Zweig's plot is poetic and simple: "The celebrated novelist R." returns home from a refreshing trip on his 41st birthday to find among his papers "two dozen hastily written pages in an unfamiliar, shaky, feminine hand, a manuscript rather than a letter" (157). After a two paragraph introduction, the letter begins and its unnamed author's voice dominates the novella uninterrupted until her last words, "Thank you ... I love you, I love you. Farewell" (185). R. is trembling as he puts down the letter. No image of the author forms, only vague recollections. He then gazes at an empty vase on his writing-table (the woman had been sending him flowers anonymously every year on his birthday) and finally feels tangible proof of her absence. Zweig writes,
 He became conscious of a death and conscious of undying love.
 Something struck a chord in his innermost soul, and he strove ardently
 to reach out in spirit towards the unseen presence, as though he were
 hearing distant music (185).

In the first two paragraphs, R. is not the same broken soul that one senses in Stefan at the start of the film. And the impact of her letter is much more ambiguous in the novella. Zweig emphasizes the sense of loss--her death emphasized by the lack of flowers, reduced to an ephemeral, nameless, imageless spirit. She exists only in words to the novelist--but the reader does not know if the news spurs R. to action (or inaction). In the film, the "musician's chord is not struck", nor does he "hear distant music". The boutoniere Stefan takes from the bouquet she brought to their last rendezvous instead embodies her continued presence. John signs her letter: "Lisa Berndle". Stefan "sees" her spectre at the door. Stefan goes to the duel, acknowledging himself as Lisa's lover. The letter of the novella signifies an emptiness and the loss of her love. In the film, it is a testament and confirmation of her love.

The novella uses a much more narrow range of perspectives. There are only two voices in Zweig's book, the omniscient narrator and the woman's letter, and once the woman's letter begins on paragraph three, Zweig never breaks from her voice until the letter's completion two paragraphs from the end of the novella. R. as an autonomous character recounted by the omniscient narrator barely comprises four paragraphs of Zweig's 18 page novella. Otherwise he is only a character insomuch as he is recounted by events narrated in the letter, and the only access the reader has to their eluded romance is mediated directly through her voice. Might R. have recalled things differently--if he could have remembered? How might an objective narrator complement or counterpoint her voice?

Perkins maintains that the film's ambiguities are encapsulated by its "multi-layered time structure" (Williams 47). "For Perkins," Williams writes, "Lisa's vision is endorsed on one level of the film and subtly undermined on another" (49). While Lisa narrates the flashbacks in Ophuls' film, the flashbacks are not restricted to her point of view. Her voice never dominates like the anonymous author's does in the novella. This is clear throughout Lisa and Stefan's first date together--the musicians thoroughly unmoved by Stefan and Lisa's rapture on the dance floor, for example. Lisa is certainly not privy to the complaints of the bratwurst chomping Brunhilds while Lisa and Stefan waltze during their first evening together, yet the musicians are prominent in every shot that the music plays. For the spectator, their banter provides an amusing counterpoint to Lisa's reverie by defusing a potentially saccharine moment (or worse, a scene that could have been cynical and cruel given the eventual turn of events) and ultimately making the scene more humane and touching. Williams continues,
 Perkins terms this dual-level structure in the film "Ophuls' refusal
 to make up his mind" about Lisa. Yet matters are in fact much more
 complicated: these "two Lisas"--one endorsed by the film's frame of
 reference, the other not--are presented not as alternatives but appear
 simultaneously (49).

Robin Wood eloquently summarizes Perkins' insight (and Ophuls' achievement) as "the balancing of two apparently incompatible modes, romanticism and irony, without ever permitting one to overwhelm or disqualify the other, without ever lapsing into sentimentality or cynicism" (207). In terms of how this complicates the viewers' relationship to Lisa, Pauline Kael is apt. She writes, "Joan Fontaine suffers and suffers, but so exquisitely [...] that one doesn't know whether to clobber the poor, wronged creature or give in and weep" (419). The film's time structures (10 years, three hours, 85 minutes) reflect three distinct points of view.

Ophuls repeatedly shows Lisa completely oblivious to her surroundings, especially the people who become integral to the construction of her romance: she gets in the way of the movers bringing Stefan's belongings into her apartment building (and by extension, Stefan into her life); it is Stefan, not Lisa, who pays the "engineer" during their locomotion voyages on that fateful night (and not even Stefan seems to take much notice of the bundled old bloke sipping hot coffee and pushing a giant crank to keep the illusion rolling); and Lisa is curiously curt with John when she returns to Stefan's apartment for their rendezvous ten years after their first.

The flashbacks are motivated by Lisa's letter, but do not conform to it. Yet at other moments they seem eerily complicit. Upon returning to Vienna, Lisa takes a job as a model at a ready-to-wear shop. The film makes clear it is the sort of work where the women are as much on display as the clothes. An older officer sits in the salon as Lisa models a dress for his female companion. The officer gets up and the camera tracks with him over to Lisa's employer, Madame Spitzer, in the foreground.

Lisa continues curtsying in the background of the shot as Madame Spitzer breaks the news to the officer that "she is not like that." The film dissolves to the exterior of the shop. The other models are greeted and whisked off by male companions, leaving Lisa alone in the snow. Her voice-over resumes: "Madame Spitzer spoke the truth. I was not like the others. Nobody waited for me." But how does Lisa know what Madame Spitzer says to him when they were clearly out of earshot?

The viewer actually knows surprisingly little what Lisa wrote in the letter. The assumption is--and given Lisa's voice-overs it is probably not false--that it matches fairly closely what the viewer sees and hears onscreen. But it has already been shown that it does not and cannot match exactly. Wood addresses this issue of visual and verbal narration in Letter. A writer can say "chair", but a filmmaker must necessarily choose a specific chair--this chair and not that chair or that other chair--decide what angle to shoot it from, how to light it, and how long to hold the shot. The decisions accumulate twenty-four times a second. Wood writes, "Ophuls--far more subtly--never contradicts Lisa. Her narration is allowed its own integrity, which he respects, even venerates; it is, as far as it goes, 'the truth'. But it is her truth, not his" (Sexual 206).

It is possible that while Ophuls shows the elderly officer talking to Madame Spitzer, Lisa writes something simpler along the lines of: "I worked at a ready-to-wear shop, and the proprietress Madame Spitzer was always warning our admirers that I was unlike the other girls. Madame Spitzer was telling the truth ...." (The novella offers no due here. The heroine of the novella also works at a ready-to-wear shop upon her return to Vienna, but never specifies exactly what she does there.) Lisa the narrator shows a flair for the poetic turn of phrase, but her voice as a narrative writer is unknown to the viewer. Given the discrepancies suggested between what Ophuls shows and Lisa's narration, one cannot assume that Stefan is seeing the same story as the viewer. In fact, the opposite seems more likely, and what Stefan reads is a text much closer in point of view--if not in tone--to the letter from Zweig's book.

The development of the framework and the dilution of the woman's narration would seem to privilege Stefan's role. Yet possibly only someone who just read a plot summary of Letter and not watched the film could fall danger to the kind of interpretation that Tania Modleski cautions. She writes,
 We might suspect, then, that the film's movement will involve Stefan's
 coming to repudiate the former childishness of his ways and to
 acknowledge the sway of patriarchal law. And indeed the final sequence
 of the film shows Stefan bravely setting off to keep his word and get
 himself killed. Thus, though the body of the film concerns the story
 of Lisa, the woman referred to in the title, it would appear that her
 story is really a story of and for the man, and, looked at this way,
 the film seems to provide exceptionally strong support for those
 critics who contend that there is no such thing as a woman's film,
 that Hollywood films are always dramas of and for the
 male ("Time" 250).

Modleski shrewdly complicates this thesis, arguing the need to go beyond the psychoanalytic castration anxiety (and by implication psychoanalytic film theory) that denies the validity or significance of the woman's picture for its female audience (261-2), but her warning is ill-founded. No sensitive critic (including herself) could suggest the film is Stefan's. Despite the framework the viewer is no closer to Stefan's point of view than to Lisa's. And if Ophuls complicates the viewer's relationship to Lisa, she's never "unknown" to the viewer no matter how many times Stefan forgets her. Robin Wood rejects Modleski's Oedipal warnings and argues that "despite the fact that Stefan dominates the framework, this is Lisa's film" (Sexual 224). It is Lisa's obsession that moves the film forward. Wood suggests Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) for comparison. If Lisa obsession for a man defines her as a character--if not a woman--it is certainly no more defining than Scottie's obsession for Madeleine in Vertigo. (No one would possibly state that Vertigo is proof that the male film does not exist, although it does severely problematize the "male film".) One might even argue that Lisa's obsession is ultimately healthier and less solipsistic than Scottie's since the fault in recognition in Letter lies with the object and not the subject. (Williams' evocation of A. J. Greimas' basic elements of any story--"'Jactants,' or in the anthropomorphized form that most stories take, 'characters'; and objects of value"--might apply to Lisa and Stefan the way Williams notes it applies to Madame de ... and her earrings (106-7).) Lisa is bewitched by Stefan before she even sees him--falling in love with his "beautiful things" and the sound of his piano--but he is at least a living man who (sometimes) returns her affections. Scottie is in love not with a woman, but the performance of a woman (and later that performance's image), and ends up desecrating the vision's flesh and blood embodiment in an attempt to recreate a phantom.

Unlike Vertigo, there are very few point of view shots in Letter, and each one tends to be all the more remarkable because of it. As Wood notes the most striking POV in Letter is the shot of Lisa at the top of the staircase as she watches Stefan come home with his latest conquest, a shot that is later replicated when Stefan brings Lisa home on their first night together. The second time it is the viewer alone who is watching. Ophuls' reclamation of an emblematic shot of Lisa's romantic disappointment at first feels triumphant--now it is Lisa, and not some other woman, coming home with Stefan just as she always fantasized. It is a projection of her wish fulfillment. But it is triumph tinged with irony. The shot also foreshadows that regardless of Stefan's intentions Lisa is just another conquest. It further reinforces Lisa's point of view is not the viewer's--but suggests how the two lovers will ultimately become united.

In the scene earlier that evening when Stefan passes Lisa on the street, their exchange of glances echoes their first face-to-face meeting at the doorway of the apartment: Stefan passes Lisa, walks a few paces. He stops and turns. Cut to close-up of Stefan. Cut to a long shot of Lisa standing shyly by the door. This night, however, Stefan will approach Lisa. The repeated pattern teases that Stefan will recognize Lisa as the girl next door. The camera tracks behind Stefan over his shoulder as he walks toward her. The sequence appears to be constructed around Stefan's gaze: a close-up of Stefan followed by a shot of what he is looking at, Lisa standing in full view, cut back to Stefan, and then track over his shoulder as he walks towards Lisa, vibrating with anticipation. Identification is created not through what the viewer sees, but what the viewer knows. It's not the gaze, but knowledge that aligns the viewer's sympathies and emotions. The viewer, not Stefan (or Scottie in Vertigo), knows these are the same women. And thus the viewer does not see what Stefan sees despite the shared POV. The viewer does not merely see a pretty woman standing in the snow, but the barely contained euphoria of Lisa Berndle being approached by her true love. It is how one might imagine desire--and being desired.

Lisa's letter offers Stefan another chance. Perkins earlier faults Lisa repeatedly for never letting Stefan reciprocate. He wryly notes that Lisa's "major tactic in interaction with Stefan seems to be helpful passivity" (Williams 49). Lisa--so enwrapped in her romantic daydream, so desperate to improve herself for Stefan (not that he ever asks her to), so willing to prove that "she is not like the others" (the girls at the shop who regularly go home with the customers)--cannot take the first step towards real communication. She is willing to remake herself for Stefan, but she wants him on her terms. In their two subsequent meetings, Stefan repeatedly tells Lisa in one way or another: a) 1 feel you could help me, and b) I feel I've seen you before. Just once Lisa could tell him, "Yes, I can help you. You have seen me before."

When Vertigo's "unknown woman" sits to write her letter, unlike Lisa she never sends her confession. Judy's voice only exists between herself and the spectator. Scottie and Judy's points of view are never reconciled--just as Scottie remains oblivious (or at best indifferent) to Midge's affections. (The brief shots of Midge's reactions to Scottie's growing romance with Madeleine are indeed the few breaks in the film's otherwise complete commitment to Scottie's point of view in the first half.) Vertigo's brilliance is exactly how committed it is to a kind of first person cinema, and then midway overlaps that POV with another. The viewer is locked first with Scottie then abruptly switches to Judy, but the two lines only come together in death and never achieve romantic harmony. Vertigo is a kind of tale of two soliloquies (or three soliloquies if one takes into account Midge). No less brilliant, Letter uses its three narrative spaces and three timelines, however, to bring its lovers together. The dissolve that links Stefan and Lisa in death also echoes their first meeting. As Lisa opens the door for Stefan and steps back behind it, Stefan's face is briefly reflected in the glass superimposed on top of Lisa's. Now back in the "present" of Stefan's apartment, Lisa's bouquet of flowers of their last meeting sits in the vase just starting to wilt and droop. And the shot of the doorway meeting that once exemplified Lisa's unrequited yearnings--Lisa away from the camera in a long shot, and Stefan at best bemused by what the spectator clearly sees as her enrapture--now transformed into Stefan's acknowledgement of her love seems a testament to the film's power, the power of the film in general, and the power of love over all.

Works Cited

Kael, Pauline. 5001 Nights at the Movies. New York: Owl Books, 1991.

Modleski, Tania. "Time and Desire in the Woman's Film." Letter from an Unknown Woman. Ed. Virginia Wright Wexman. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1986. 249-264.

Williams, Alan. Max Ophuls and the Cinema of Desire. New York: Arno Press, 1980.

Wood, Robin. Sexual Politics and Narrative Film. New York: Columbia IP, 1998.

Zweig, Stefan. "Letter from an Unknown Woman." Letter from an Unknown Woman. Ed. Virginia Wright Wexman. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1986. 157-188.
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Title Annotation:ROBIN WOOD Dossier
Author:Longfield, Michael
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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