Viennese Jewish writer Stefan Zweig (18881-1942) was the most-translated and best-selling author who wrote in German between the world wars (outselling the works by Noble Prize-winners Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse). His 1922 novella Brief einer Unbekannten (Letter from an Unknown Woman) is his best-known work of fiction, not least in that it was brought to the screen in English (by German-born Jewish director Max Ophüls in 1948) and again in Chinese (directed by Xu Jinglei in 2004; and again in Mongolian, a version I have not seen and a 1975 Russian opera I have neither seen nor heard).
Returning to Vienna from a holiday, a rich 41-year-old writer in Vienna finds a packet that includes a long letter from a woman. She tells him that if he receives her letter, she is dead. She tells him that as a young teenager she lived with her widowed and poor mother across the hall from the writer’s apartment an silently stalked him. Her mother remarried and took her off to Innsbruck, but she returned on her own when she was 18.
Putting herself in his path, he picks her up without recognizing he has ever seen her before. I don’t think one can say he seduces someone so eager to be intimate with him. Of course, she is pregnant and he does not give her any thought when he leaves on another trip.
She loses her job and becomes a courtesan (kept by rich men rather than available like a prostitute is). At a nightclub she sees the writer again, is picked up by him again, spends another night with him. Again, he does not recognize ever having seen her before. And assuming she is a prostitute, he tries to give the woman in love with him money for their night of amour.
The son she had by him dies in the great Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, and before she also expires she writes the letter to be sent if she dies.
I think that Howard Koch’s screenplay improved on Zweig, despite having to tiptoe around the Hollywood Production Code. Turning the writer into a concert pianist of renown (played by the suave Louis Jourdan, and given Zweig’s first name, Stefan) also gives Lisa (Joan Fontaine in her best performance) something to listen to from the hallway, and good reason to leave Vienna frequently to give concerts elsewhere (Milan in the case of leaving after unknowingly impregnating her).
Koch had to give her a job (dress model rather than courtesan) and a husband, but since she dies, I guess it was permissible for her to be knocked up. The melodrama of a duel added to the ending seems unnecessary to me (Stefan is going off to it at the end, results unknown to the viewer).
The perfect casting of the leads and the famed Ophüls fluid camerawork make this, for me, an instance of a movie better than the book on which it is based (other examples include “Gone with the Wing” and Dosteovesky’s “The Double”).
©2014, Stephen O. Murray