By the time you read this letter I may be dead.
I have so much to write and perhaps so little time
This is a review of the 1948 movie Letter From An Unknown Woman. It starred Joan Fontaine has the unknown woman Lisa Berndle and Louis Jourdan has the object of her passions Stefan Brand. The screenplay was by Howard Koch and the director was Max Opuls. It was based on a 1922 Novella of the same name by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig who was also involved in the story telling for the movie.
I say that this is a review but that was made-up. I have already told you a story!
It is the full text of the letter from the unknown woman to a well known musician. I looked for the text of this letter online but could not find it. I don’t mind if a copy does exist already though as writing out the letter myself introduced new cadences and subtleties to me. I have recorded it verbatim, at least word-for-word, hopefully the spirit too. Though really you need to hear this letter read out by Joan Fontaine. Well really you should watch the film. But I thought the letter was worthy of being recorded too, as if I had traveled back in time with my pocket sized copier and scanned away undercover of the night. But no need for the science fiction as movies are science-fact time travel. Except that this movie is eternal. In movies like this past present and future is all as one.
The letter punctuates the film so if I presented it as it is some of its meaning would likely be lost. Equally I do not want to give too much distracting context to it either so have tried to be as spare as possible. The orchestral accompaniment by David Tamkin adds to the letter’s narration too. If only we could all live our lives with scored music punctuating key events!
By the time you read this letter I may be dead.
I have so much to write and perhaps so little time
Will I ever send it? I don’t know.
I must find the strength to write now before it’s too late.
And as I write it may become clear that what happened to us had its own reason beyond our poor understanding.
If this reaches you, you will know how I became yours when you didn’t even know who I was or even that I existed.
I think everyone has two birthdays, the day of his physical birth and the beginning of his conscious life
Nothing is vivid or real in my memory before that day in spring when I came home from school and found a moving van in front of our building.
I wondered about our new neighbour who owned such beautiful things.
I didn’t see him that day or for many days thereafter but I could listen to your playing.
Yes I was blushing.
Her first encounter of him
And hard as it may be for you to realize, from that moment on I was in love with you.
Quite consciously I began to prepare myself for you.
I kept my clothes neater, so you wouldn’t be ashamed of me. I went to dancing school, I wanted to become more graceful and learn good manners for you.
And so I would know more about you and your world I, I went to the library and studied the lives of the great musicians of the past.
Though I was not able to go to your concerts I found ways of sharing in your success.
And as the months went by I began to know your friends, many of them were women, most of them.
But I really lived for those evenings when we were alone
And I pretended you were playing just for me.
And though you didn’t know it
You were giving me some of the happiest moments of my life.
Then came a great day for me
In the building where we live Thursday was rug-beating day.
She uses it as an opportunity to return his rug to his apartment and to look around it in his absence.
In the next scene her mother advises her she is re-marrying and they will have to move away – and a significant distance (Vienna, Austria to Linsk, Poland).
‘What is there to keep us here’ the mother’s unintentionally cruel and not-at-all rhetorical question.
Suddenly I knew I could not live without you.
I did not know what I had in mind or what my parents would do when they found me missing.
All I wanted was to see you once more
To be near you again, to throw myself at your feet and to cling to you.
And never leave you. Nothing else. Nothing else mattered.
She returns to her old home without her mother knowing.
These rooms where I had lived had been filled with your music and now they were empty.
Would they ever come to life again. Would I?
Only you could answer and so I waited. Waited. For what seemed endless hours I sat outside your door. And tried to keep myself awake.
Afraid I might fall asleep and miss you.
He returns with a woman. Holding hands. Laughing.
And so there was nothing left for me. I went to Linsk.
You who have always lived so freely.
Have you any idea what life is like in a little garrison town?
I was eighteen now and was expected to take my place in society.
She is introduced to its society.
The Lieutenant was right. Linsk was a musical town.
So twice a month that summer we listened, the Lieutenant and I.
The Lieutenant proposes marriage to her. Not as awkward and hopeless as that of Parson Mr Collins to Miss Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice but as successful. She rebuffs him by telling him she is engaged. She is not. She returns again alone to Vienna this time with her parent’s knowing and reluctant blessing.
My poor parents, to them this was the end. Only it was a new beginning.
Vienna when I saw it again seemed to have taken on a new splendour.
All the time I had been away I had thought of it longingly as your city. Now it was our city.
Madame Spitzers is where I found work. It was the kind of establishment where one learns many things.
A Haberdashery. Madame Spitzer commented that she was not like most young women she had known.
Madame Spitzer spoke the truth, I was not like the others.
Nobody waits for me. Off I went. Not home.
To the only place that ever seemed like home to me.
Night after night I returned to the same spot and you never noticed me.
Until one night.
He notices her, they talk. Or they try to among all the other people who want to talk to him. They then eat out together, he talks a lot about himself, she does not say much about herself. He is known about town, she is almost a shadow. He buys her a single flower, a white rose and asks ‘Is it your flower?’ She answers ‘From now on it will be’. They head for the park under cover of the dark, but it hosts a fun-fair which is awake and which they join and talk some more. As the night progresses she listens less and asks more questions though still shares little about herself – ‘Tell me when you climb up a mountain’ she asks ‘what then? ‘Well, you come down again’ he answers. They then dance. And dance and dance. And dance.
They then return home and eventually embrace and kiss and scene fades to darkness and we can imagine what we may.
Next scene he appears at the shop and informs her he is going away for a short while.
Two weeks. Stefan how little you knew yourself. That train was taking you out of my life.
We now see her in hospital having had a baby. Their baby. He does not know. He is also married. She won’t tell the hospital the father’s name but has given his name Stefan to their baby.
And I wonder why I never came to you for help. I wanted to be one woman you had known who asked you for nothing.
My deep regret is that you never saw your son. There were times during those years I prefer not to remember.
This I can assure you, whatever the cost he repaid me a thousand times. You would have been proud of him too.
And he was almost nine and as much for his sake as mine I married.
You know who my husband is. Johann Stauffer married me knowing the truth about us and our child.
The course of our lives can be changed by such little things. So many passing by each intent on his own problems.
So many faces that one might easily have been lost. I know now nothing happens by chance. Every moment is measured. Every step is counted.
And at an Opera showing of Mozart’s The Magic Flute Stefan Brand comes to her attention again but now known not for his concert tours but his pleasure trips. They say of him that his talent was not enough or even that he had too many talents. They are both shown sitting in separate opera-boxes in the dark.
Suddenly in that one moment everything was in danger. Everything I thought was safe.
Somewhere out there were your eyes and I knew I could not escape them. It was like the first time I saw you, the years between melting away.
She exits her box but he has seen her and follows her though he does not fully recognize her now, saying to her ‘I feel that you understand what I cannot even say’. She returns to her husband and they ride by coach to their home. Her husband takes the opportunity to remind her of decency and honour fearing she will return to Stefan Brand and advising her against ‘all this romantic nonsense’.
Next scene sees her nine year old son going on a fortnight’s vacation (notably traveling alone on a train). But they had first mistakenly entered a quarantined carriage and were advised to move to another one. Quarantined from typhus it transpires. We see someone later being stretchered from the train. Meanwhile she has made a late visit to the father Stefan’s home. ‘Is it too late for supper’ he asks, adding ‘You are here and as far as I am concerned all the clocks have stopped’.
He lifts her veil, they kiss. But it is clear to her that he still remembers her only from the night before at the opera and earlier memories are still not stirred. So while he is in another room fetching champagne she leaves.
I had come to tell you about us and to offer you my whole life.
But you didn’t even remember me.
I don’t remember where I went.
Time moved past me. Not in days and hours but in the distance it put between us.
When I could think again I went to my son. But it was too late. He died last night of typhus without even knowing I was there.
Now I am alone. My head throbs and my temples are burning. Perhaps God has been kind and I too have caught the fever.
If this letter reaches you, believe this, that I love you now as I have always loved you.
My life can be measured by the moments I have had with you and our child.
If only you could have shared those moments.
If only you could have recognized what was always yours.
Could have found what was never lost…
The film reprises ‘If only you could have recognized what was always yours. Could have found what was never lost’.