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Same Tune Again!
Repetition and Framing in Letter from an Unknown Woman
By V.F. PERKINS
Towards the end of The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls, 1949), at a point when it seems the heroine's problems have been resolved, there is a scene in a bar. The camera foregrounds an attractive young woman, dissolute-looking and most likely drunk, as she leans across a juke-box to berate the mechanism: "No, no, no, no! Just play the same tune again. Same tune again!" This is in the course of a rapid movement tracing Martin Donelly's (James Mason) agitated quest, so the woman is held in the frame only for a moment as he pauses. But the sound-track retains her words beyond the passing of her image. "Same tune again!" marks a stage where what seemed settled is about to be cast back into jeopardy, and Donnelly is about to be given a reason to renew his efforts to be of service to the heroine, along with the opportunity to resume their strange, unacknowledged courtship.
An equivalent moment in Letter from an Unknown Woman comes at the opera, with the repeated calls of "Second act. Curtain going up" just when Stefan is about to re-enter Lisa's life [*1]. In each case the device marks the shape of the story, marks the story as being shaped and not just unwinding with the course of events or the process of memory. Both devices articulate a relationship between the pattern of the story and the pattern of the film. They do this, in part, through their stress on things not starting but starting again. They incorporate processes independent of the protagonists' aims and actions - the mechanism of the juke-box, the conventions of operatic performance - so as to invoke the routine quality of the world's repetitions and the possibility of being habituated or inured to its ways of going on going round.
These emphases are in permanent tension with another possibility, that of the decisive, the crucial, where every moment may be the one to be measured, and every step may count. Each of the characters experiences time differently because for each of them any given moment has its own, and their own, blend between the mundane and the special. Emblematic here is the film's use of the idea of the birthday as on the one hand an occasion that comes round year on year, advancing us stealthily from cradle to grave, and on the other as marking a beginning, or a new beginning. The film is at pains to specify whether a repetition is acknowledged or ignored or vaguely apprehended, and to discriminate between repetition lived as boredom or servitude or disappointment and repetition embraced or desired as renewal and affirmation.
Such shadings are not easy to achieve. They require both boldness and delicacy. As a ground the film builds a careful discrimination between its own processes and those in the lives and world of its characters, insisting on its own ability both to observe and to produce patterns of repetition and variation. Crucially the marked returns to Stefan at various stages in his reading of Lisa's letter pronounce the film's paragraphing of her story by making a formal repetition out of what could be mere continuation, more of the same. Once the film has established its devices - Joan Fontaine's narrating voice as representing the words of Lisa's letter, the moves out of and into focus as transitions from the reading present to the recounted past - it uses them with freedom and refuses to be governed by any simple understanding that would dictate a strict system of equivalences. So the focus-blur that most often marks a move between past and present, and is most often bridged by a resumption of narration, can function also to make the ellipse that covers the birth of young Stefan without any return to the moment of reading.
The challenge to the film is to arrive at order and comprehensibility without falling into an impoverishing neatness. It is vital to its effect that it should not solicit a literal reading of its devices, and that it should arrive at a persuasive form while blocking any coherent understanding of the relations between the words of the letter, the speaking voice and the movie's images. No rational time-scale or system of subjectivities holds the key elements in harmony. Lisa cannot be reading the letter since Lisa is dead. Stefan cannot be imagining the reading in Lisa's voice since he does not know who sent it. The images we see are not explicable as projections of the letter's content since we are so often shown events and transactions of which Lisa was unaware. Of course a loose convention is in play, one that allows us to understand the voice-over as speaking (some of) the words of the letter, and the images as constituting an internal movie that offers an independent version of the letter's events. But Ophuls and Koch push very hard against the limits of this convention and expose - where others would seek to naturalise - its artifice.
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Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948).
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A relevant contrast is with Brief Encounter (David Lean/Noël Coward, 1945) and it would be interesting to know how consciously it was a model for Ophuls and Koch. One could imagine Ophuls, a director generous to the work of fellow artists, as an admirer of the British film and one impressed - as so many were - by its restraint and its refusal of glamour and gloss. Equally it would be unsurprising to find that his artistic conscience was affronted by the Lean film's mixture of schematism and inconsistency in, for instance, its opportunistic use of Rachmaninov's music. In Brief Encounter the flashback story is narrated by a voice representing the unspoken thoughts of the Celia Johnson character (Laura). The film stays carefully within the constraints of its narrative premise until near its end but then makes one very large deviation (in the scene that Billy Wilder claims as the inspiration for The Apartment). Laura scurries away down the fire escape when an assignation with her passionate friend Alec (Trevor Howard) is interrupted by the surprise return of the apartment's owner. We are then given a scene between the two men - the dialogue that famously climaxes in "No, Alec - not angry - just disappointed". The scene defies the logic of the flashbacks as Laura's memories (which may be her fantasies). When it is finished we rejoin Laura; her voice-over resumes to tell us that she spent the next three hours wandering alone to overcome her humiliation and shame [*2]. Nothing has given her access to the men's exchange, and nothing legitimises their scene as, say, a product of Laura's imagination.
Brief Encounter's mapping of viewpoint is insistently tidy, with concealments at the start that have no other value than to prepare the ground for clarifications at the end. The governing contrivance jars against the film's unwillingness or inability to sustain its narrative premise. Neatness without formal rigour reduces to fussiness. Whether or not in reaction to Brief Encounter Ophuls' strategy is just the reverse. Where Lean's Laura is silent about the men's conversation, and the film is seemingly embarrassed by the break in its narrative logic, Letter from an Unknown Woman frequently and systematically displays the mismatch between conflicting narrative assumptions, most particularly by stressing Lisa's absence from, or obliviousness to, scenes and incidents pictured in the flashbacks.
Much comment has for good reason centred on those elements that undercut her enraptured view of the romance. Representative here are Stefan's negotiations with the old couple who run the scenic train in the Prater. Both times attention is drawn to Stefan's leaving Lisa in the compartment and so leaving Lisa in ignorance of his transaction. There is in each case a cut to the exterior of the closed compartment, a cut emphatic in its refusal of the fluid continuity that was at Ophuls' command. Then the camera tracks and pans with Stefan so as to measure the length of his walk from the compartment to the ticket kiosk when he goes to 'talk to the engineer'. Finally, in each instance, after Stefan's return towards the compartment the camera stays with the mechanics to detail the labour of illusion-making in a process from which Stefan too is excluded.
This scene stays within the relatively easy convention whereby the film, being bound to show more than a narrator can describe, is also free to show us more of the world than the narrator could have observed, and to point to the significance of aspects ignored by the protagonists. The film's emphases can be more or less striking in their divergence from those of the narrator - variables that Ophuls keeps under finely nuanced control. The convention is stretched to its limits perhaps in those moments where within the flashbacks we are given sights which could have fallen within Lisa's consciousness and which, if they had done so, would have required her to make a response. The starkest instance of this comes when the married Lisa, Frau Stauffer, is standing at the gates of Stefan's apartment. In an abrupt break from the continuity that has carried us smoothly to a close shot of Lisa from within the gates, the film cuts to a long view of her from the far end of the street, and a rapid pan reveals Johann Stauffer (Maurice Journet) at the window of his carriage observing the action which is, for him, definitive of Lisa's infidelity. If the continuity has shown Lisa to be revisiting the scenes of her youth, through a process of sound and image that recalls earlier passages, the break in the flow is equally emphatic that a married woman in this society incurs radically changed consequences for herself and her beloved when she attempts to renew the romantic pursuits of an unattached young woman. Here, in a shot which is all about seeing, being seen, and their opposites, it is vivid that Lisa is unaware of her husband's presence.
It is in those devices that bear on the relationship between the letter and the flashbacks that Ophuls and Koch are boldest in their defiance of narrative logic. The design is, I take it, to ensure that we cannot come to feel that there is a real world within the fiction where Lisa's writing of the letter can merge with Stefan's reading. Their coming together occurs only in and through the artifice of the film. Beyond that we are blocked from giving them the responsibility for the information and viewpoints that the film presents. Fictionality extends from the story to the narrative method with the film's flaunting of impossibility, at its most overt in the scene that depicts Lisa's life once she has left Linz to make her own way in Vienna, and to seek reunion with Stefan. As soon as we are taken into the dress shop to find Lisa modelling garments for Madame Spitzer (Sonja Bryden) Ophuls embarks on a swift delineation of its various spaces, levels and barriers, emphasising the separation between areas in terms of function and protocol as well as of space and structure. With smoothness and economy he establishes a stage for Lisa's display in relation to a range of back-stages and off-stages. Action and camera movement then show the quest for privacy as an old lecher in an officer's uniform crosses the room away from his wife to engage in a sly consultation with Mme Spitzer, who is seated at her desk on the other side of a railing at a level below Lisa's stage. More could hardly be done to stress that theirs is an intimate and furtive conversation as the officer, with his back turned from Lisa, hears the disappointing news that "she is not like that... Every evening as soon as the shutters are closed, off she goes - straight home."
The next words are Lisa's, delivered in the narration: "Madame Spitzer spoke the truth. I was not like the others... " The lines are written to disturb our understanding. Lisa seems to have heard the words that were so conspicuously withheld from her. But if she could not have heard them then, where is she that she can comment on them now? Boldness is balanced with delicacy in the achievement of this impossible continuity. No words intervene between Mme Spitzer's and Lisa's, but their lines are spaced by a dissolve through time and a move from inside to out. A new action has begun with the women's departure from work into the snow-strewn evening streets before we hear Lisa's comment. Through his pacing Ophuls ensures that the effect is not to explode the narrative into absurdity with a gag, but subtly to position it beyond any real time and space.
We should ask ourselves what is performed by Joan Fontaine in her delivery of the narration. She is not enacting the composition of the letter; she does not pause or correct herself in the effort to find the right words. Although she suggests at the start that she may be dying her voice is not fevered or enfeebled. The film does without one of Stefan Zweig's key literary effects, the adoption of a stilted manner that displays the woman's straining after the weight and depth that she wants her words to attain. In Zweig's tale the letter opens with a blunt statement of the death of the writer's child. Then the fact of it is obsessively restated so that the whole account is governed by one mood of heartbreak at the edge of hysteria. But in the film both the narration and the performance vary their tone in response to the events immediately under description. The moods of the words and of the voice carry the sense that Lisa is speaking to Stefan, reliving the feelings and thoughts of the moments as she retraces them. The fiction is almost of Lisa's seeing the past now as Stefan reads about it, and offering her response to its sights and statements - responding now, for instance, to Mme Spitzer's description . So the impression of presence, of an impossible presence, is reinforced.
The effect is reversed in Stefan's reading of the letter. At its completion his mute servant John (Art Smith) does him the service of writing down the name of Lisa Berndl. He responds to this as if to new information. Yet the name has been extensively used throughout the flashbacks. It could hardly be otherwise, one might think [*3]. But here too Letter from an Unknown Woman aggravates a difficulty that other films would avoid. The first word spoken within the first flashback is Lisa's name. It is not spoken but shouted, three times, as Lisa's mother summons her indoors from her dreamy contemplation of the delivery van with Stefan's 'beautiful things'. Thereafter the name is frequently used, often with peremptory emphasis to command Lisa's movement, notably right at the start of three of the four major flashback sequences; in close juxtaposition, then, with Stefan's reading image [*4]. It should at least trouble us to find Stefan at the end still without the knowledge of Lisa's name that we seem to have obtained through his reading.
We could understand the intention coherently as a design to maintain the subjectivity of the narrative in the letter's text (where Lisa is only - like the heroine in Rebecca - a nameless "I") and to stress the independence of the much broader perspective taken in the film's enactments: the film knows her name, though the letter does not tell it. Yet we must understand the drama of the flashbacks to be closely derived from the letter's account; its shape is determined by Lisa's experience and we see nothing of Stefan's past life or career (for instance in Milan or America or in the concert hall) that does not immediately bear upon Lisa's story as Lisa has told it.
It is, on the face of it, odder that the letter is unaddressed than that it is unsigned. Lisa was never going to reach the end of what she had to tell because she was never going, in the circumstances of her writing, to arrive at the one point that could satisfy her: Stefan's recognition. So her writing would stop only as her strength failed, at the start of yet another "If only..."
At the opening there is no Dear Stefan to specify the you in "By the time you read this letter I may be dead." There is a play with the names here whereby the writer has omitted Stefan's name and withheld her own, only for the film to have it shouted by her mother on the break as narration yields to enactment in the flashback that takes us to Lisa's girlhood. On this day - which she speaks of as her birthday - Lisa's mother names her for us, performing the introduction that Lisa consistently evades. One aspect of the deadlock between Lisa and Stefan, reflecting their different orientations to time and memory and hope, is that Lisa is unwilling to sully the authenticity and spontaneity of Stefan's recognition by identifying herself while Stefan in his narcissism wants to hear his own name on Lisa's lips more than he wants to learn hers.
His "Who are you?" outside the opera is hardly a request for her name. It is quite probable that he knows her as Stauffer's wife. What would be involved in his remembering her name is a world away from what it would mean to be told it.
Stefan would at last be preferring knowledge to mystery. His "Who are you?" is not only "Where have I seen you before?" but "Why does it matter?" He is asking Lisa to tell him her role in his life - a question which it will take Lisa the whole of her letter to define and which Lisa can present only from Lisa's point of view. Stefan's "Who are you?" believes that the answer on this woman's significance for him must come from outside himself. It requires notions of perfection and romantic destiny - "that one face among all others" - at least as powerful as those that govern Lisa. (And it requires unattainability, which means that Lisa's presenting herself as a married woman available for seduction can only make her one of the "usual things".)
If Lisa neither addresses nor signs her letter, these functions are performed for her - both of them - by John. In their essays on Letter from an Unknown Woman Stanley Cavell and George M. Wilson have drawn attention to his role as signatory, seeing it as Ophuls' acknowledgement of authorship [*5]. But John's role in recalling Lisa's name - effectively, for Stefan, giving her a name - continues his role as the bearer of her letter (which can also be seen as his delivery of the screenplay). When Stefan arrives home at the start of the film he is intending to make a quick departure from Vienna to avoid a duel. He has given his orders and is walking away, almost out of shot, when John summons him back into the corridor with a touch (as if to remind him of something he has forgotten) and goes to fetch a silver salver on which the letter sits unopened. Making the delivery of the letter an interruption in Stefan's movement and a reversal of its direction anticipates the pattern of his encounters with Lisa. The action of fetching and offering the letter is elaborated to stress John's role as intermediary. This elaboration stands in contrast with the absence of attention to the writing on the envelope, and is a stylistic decision in line with the definition of the letter as an object that sits unattended in the hallway, waiting for Stefan. It is placed near the centre of the frame and given quite a glow by Franz Planer's lighting. Among the rejected options were to have the letter delivered after Stefan's return, to have it offered to him as one of several (Zweig's way), or to have him find it on his desk without John's aid.
The transmission of the letter allows for a strengthening of John's part in the palindromic patterns of the film's start and finish. Palindrome is a special case of repetition and variation where the elements of the first part are repeated in reverse order in the second so that the approach to the end is also a return to the start. The clear reversal of the opening image in the closing one, as the departing carriages mirror Stefan's arrival, articulates the framing of Lisa's story by Stefan's. Matched sets of gestures, immediately before and straight after Stefan's reading of the letter, help to mark the palindromic pattern because the gestures are more striking and less in the flow of the action than, say, John's holding the door open for Stefan at the start and closing it on him at the end. I refer to the gestures in which Stefan attends to his eyes. Having thrown the letter onto his desk, Stefan pinches the corners of his eyes in a gesture of tiredness; he then walks to the bathroom, removing the letter from its packet, and sluices his eyes with water at the washstand. At that moment his attention is caught by the letter's first statement. A close-up of the writing is answered by a close-up of Stefan, his face wet with beads of water. He picks up the letter and takes a towel to dab at the drops as he goes to begin his reading.
At the close of the final flashback, Stefan completes his reading on Lisa's last "If only...", and we move from the letter's end page to a close shot of Stefan, tracking in to glimpse the tears in his eyes. Then in the wake of the fragmentary, misted images that suggest his effort to grasp a memory of Lisa - scenes from the past that haunt but that cannot be held - we see in close-up the gesture that Stanley Cavell takes as the starting-point for his discussion: "his response... is to cover his eyes with the out-spread fingers of both hands in a melodramatic gesture of horror and exhaustion" [*6]
My suggestion is that both the tears and the blocking of the eyes have been anticipated palindromically in the imagery of the opening.
I want to avoid imposing on the film a more precise patterning than that offered by Ophuls. An inventory of sights and sounds in the opening and closing sequences would yield more unmatched than matched elements. (Strict palindrome could only be absurd in a fiction movie.) But there is a sufficiently pronounced matching in the content and order of some major moments to give a suggestion of palindrome. The effect is to lend weight to the containment of Lisa's story within Stefan's, and so to balance our sense of Lisa's letter as the frame within which the events of the past are accessed. Viewpoint is important in Stefan's reading as well as in Lisa's writing. (If we share Stefan's reading, learning about the past at the same time as he does and within similar limits, our involvement is of a different order since only Stefan is reading, perhaps seeing, himself within Lisa's account and is experiencing its impact both as a revision of his life-story and as a challenge to his memory.)
A major distinction between Stefan's story and Lisa's - against Lisa's desire to insist that the two stories are one - is that Stefan's story is ongoing and unresolved whereas Lisa's is at an end. Hence the emphasis on the delivery of Lisa's letter as a sealed packet of a certain bulk and weight. It is from another place. It is the past; there is no more to come. So Stefan's reading is of a narrative already concluded. There was an evident opportunity, refused by the film, to develop the symmetry in the framing of Lisa's tale. When Stefan started to read, and the voice of Joan Fontaine repeated the opening sentences, we could have been taken to Lisa as she began to write the letter in the hospital, adding another layer to the flashback sequence. That would have naturalised the use of the voice (which many filmmakers would have thought useful) at the cost of bringing the moment of Lisa's narrative into a present and uniting it with the moment of Stefan's reading. The film's 'irrational' procedure prevents these moments from merging and allows them to approach one another only in the letter's end at Lisa's death, imaged in the black blot that halted her script. The new discovery here, revising the sense of the sealed packet, is that the letter's story is not complete. It is instead no more than over, because the reading is finished though the writing could not be.
There is a significant advantage in the refusal to balance the flashback structure, showing us the end of the writing but not its beginning: the film can present Lisa's life in strict chronology, taking her by stages from her "second birthday" to her maturity and death. That makes it less difficult for Joan Fontaine to convince us as the schoolgirl Lisa of the early sequences [*7]. The corresponding problem for Louis Jourdan is eased by delaying his appearance in each of the flashback sections so that he is not immediately juxtaposed with his reading image. Still, the alternation is eloquent: we see various stages of Stefan's life in relation to the recurrent framing image of the middle-aged roué. The alternation in Stefan's image, as against the steady development of Lisa's, gives formal expression to the dissonance between their stories and their attitudes.
Whereas the structure of the flashbacks would tend to depict Stefan's life as a series of incidents in Lisa's, the framing scenes insist on his having immediate and urgent predicaments of his own. To observe symmetries here as elsewhere is not to resolve the question of their function and effect, since patterning can serve both to create or reinforce order and to give the emphasis of contrast to the unmatched aspects.
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The opening shot instructs us on the relationship between the stylistic patterns created by the film and the events portrayed within its world. In "Vienna About 1900" the horse-drawn carriage is driven towards the camera through the rain of a gaslit street. The shot displays the precision of its framing, since it turns out that the camera, panning to hold the vehicle in view, is in place to approach the side window as it comes to a halt, neatly encompassing a centred view of the occupants and of Stefan's head when he dismounts, within the further frame of the farside window.The convergence of the camera's view with the carriage's point of arrest holds the movements of the fictional Vienna within an elegantly ordered continuity. Not everything, though, fits within its pattern. The film is telling a story that it knows. It is not telling a story about automata. As the carriage approaches from the distance, a running figure enters the frame from the left foreground, a man with an umbrella hurrying away down the street to avoid the rain. The direction of his movement counters the flow of the shot to sketch a world that proceeds in indifference to the motions and concerns of this telling. He is placed at the start of the film as an emblem of the ordinary. The figure prepares an immediate contrast with Stefan whose bearing is of one who does not greatly care whether he lives or dies; he stands shamefaced in the rain, avoiding the gaze of his companions [*8] but doing nothing to propel their conversation to a close while the water streams from the brim of his top hat as if from a gutter.
At the end the rain has cleared so that although the street is still wet with puddles the scene looks and sounds quite different. The elements of style do not determine for us, though, how we shall balance the significance of the completion of the film's opening image against that of change in key aspects of tone: the disappearance of the rain, the replacement of darkness by dawning light. Louis Jourdan's bearing is eloquent that Stefan faces death in better spirit than he faced running off and living on. But how far his vision has cleared and how far he has been drawn into a delusion - a "romantic nonsense" that colludes with the morbid rituals of the duel - these are questions that the film is concerned not to resolve.
Ophuls unites precision of form with openness to possibility rather than making it serve the definition of a thesis. His precision shows in the preparation of the material that will be the subject of repetition, variation or inversion in the film's development. The boldness of presence and the strength of shape given to the repeated features determines whereabout the later references fall on a scale between faint allusion and bold statement. In a film so concerned with the significance of memory it is appropriate that the eloquence of its effects should depend on its capacity to stir our recall, with varying degrees of definition, of moments and patterns that we have seen before. One danger - that Brief Encounter seems to me not to avoid - is that the material being set up for repetition will be inert on its first presentation.
These are the considerations that I want to hold in mind in revisiting a pair of shots that has already received extensive discussion - the matched camera movements over the staircase as first the adolescent Lisa watches Stefan's return from a night on the town in the company of a giggling mistress and then, years later, as he is seen to lead Lisa herself up the same stairs. Much comment has dwelt, appropriately, on the removal of Lisa's watching presence. The sense is that she has entered as a dream something which on her earlier witnessing of it had more the force of a nightmare, and that she is oblivious to the particular aspects of repetition that are so strongly presented to us.
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Strength in the repetition partly depends on the boldness with which the image is shaped in its first instance. Since very many of the film's images involve the staircase, the structure that is to be particularly invoked in repetition needs to be highly distinctive. Its extremities are marked at the left by the gaslit globes of the hallway chandelier - an unusual sight because we are looking down into the jets of flame - and at the right by the expanse of bare wall that shields Lisa. The lines of the composition take added force from the curved patterns of metalwork and shadow constructed from the steel banisters.The extraordinary nature of the camera movement is determined by the effort to encompass the action on the staircase while keeping Lisa continuously in frame in the foreground, and showing her attempts to go on seeing without being seen. That produces the twisting camera movement, pivoted over Lisa's head at the right as she shrinks back against the wall of the stairwell. It also produces a pattern of repeated appearance and disappearance in the figures on the staircase. We see them enter from the vestibule; they go out of sight as they approach the stairs. They re-emerge as they reach the top and pause near the landing, only to disappear again behind the wall that masks the approach to Stefan's door. Their invisibility is stressed by the sound of furtive giggles and whispers at the bottom of the stairs and at the top by renewed giggling and the rattle as Stefan fumbles with his door-key.
The main features of this image, including the pattern of appearance and disappearance at the bottom of the stairs, are duplicated in the second instance. The repetition is pronounced because the cut to the overhead view is much more shocking as it has become a cut from exterior to interior, from a close view to a distant one, and because it is no longer in continuity with Lisa's waiting and watching by the landing. The position and movement of the camera lack the motivation that justified their contortions in the earlier instance since there is no longer a foreground figure to be held in frame. The crane out over the stairwell has become more vertiginous now that it is not shadowing the viewpoint of a human observer.
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Lisa watches Stefan return from a night on the town in the company of a giggling mistress.
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The visual repetition is cued by repetition on the sound track. The closing of the outer gates and of the hall door are sounds bracketting the familiar exchange that begins with 'Who is it?' from the concierge (Otto Waldis). After these reminders, however, the pattern of sound is crucial to a radical change of tone and the sense of difference between this occasion and the one that its images repeat. When Lisa and Stefan go out of view at the bottom of the stairs the emptiness of the image is matched by their silence; their soft, slow footfall is quite unlike the frivolous clatter and chatter we heard before. Then the suggestion was of tipsiness, and of an awareness of behaving disreputably. Those tones were amplified by the styleless flounces and frills of the woman's white gown and headdress and by the way that Stefan, in searching for his key, was encumbered by his evening dress, awkward in his management of a bulky cloak, his top hat and gloves. At the top of the stairs the haste in his leading of the woman, almost pulling her and hardly giving her a glance, together with his fumbling to remove his hat as they approach his door,carried the feeling (within the terms available in 1947) of his eagerness to get out of his clothes. Everything had a clumsy physicality. Since the event had a context for us only in Lisa's life, and none in the lives of Stefan or his woman, we saw his partner distantly as a nameless stranger - truly an unknown woman. She had the identity only of a floozie.
That has all changed in the repeated shot. It comes as the culmination not of Lisa's watching and waiting but of her, shall we say, courtship of Stefan. All that was sordid has become sacramental. There is no rush. The movements have a solemn, considerate grace. Lisa's hesitation at the top of the stairs is grave rather than coy, a moment of commitment with no demand to be coaxed. Her dress and hat are in undecorated black with a chaste simplicity of line. Stefan's clothing too has been softened and simplified so that clumsy urgency may be the more visibly replaced by attentiveness.
And noise has given way to music. The Ziehrer waltz played by the bandswomen and then by Stefan in the Prater ballroom ("Wiener Mad'ln") has been sustained on the sound track to become the fragrantly romantic accompaniment to this ascent. The calm and quiet of the sequence from ballroom and carriage to staircase stand in place of any moment of invitation or persuasion. We know that the return with Stefan is a matter of unspoken agreement, of desires mutually acknowledged from the outset.
So the assertion of similarity is put in tension with the sense of transformation.
We know that Lisa longs to give herself to Stefan. We do not know how fully she recognises the role of appetite and the body in this sacrament, or whether she recognises anything that unites her with Stefan's, and the film's, other women. "I wanted," she will later write, "to be one woman... who asked you for nothing."
The purposes of her ascent would, then, from her own viewpoint be utterly unlike those involved in Stefan's routines of pleasure. Here it becomes relevant to consider the culminations of the staircase shots and their sharp differences.
When Stefan and his woman disappeared from view for the second time they did so behind a flat, blank expanse of whitewashed wall at screen right that censored their activity. The shot was held while sound filled the blankness with suggestions of the flighty and illicit. Lisa was fixed near the centre of the frame but we could not see what, apart from her exclusion, the sounds meant to her. At the start we could see that she was watching; at the end we could not tell if she was listening.
In the reprise the pattern of appearance and disappearance is repeated, but the shot changes as soon as Stefan and Lisa go out of sight for the second time.We cut to the inside of Stefan's apartment for the couple's entrance and Lisa's immediate surrender to Stefan's embrace. There is a direct sense in which this action fills in the earlier blankness, so it is doubly striking that it yields straightaway to blankness reasserted. The conventional kiss fade-out is followed at the fade-in by an image of remarkable emptiness, reinforced by the disappearance of music. It turns out that we are looking at closed draperies sealing off an area of the dress-shop, but indecipherable silence is what we first encounter.
In the pattern of repetition and variation the emptiness here replaces the extended diminuendo in which the disillusioned Lisa had made her lonely way back down the stairs, the camera holding its position until she had exited at the bottom of the frame: "And so there was nothing left for me. I went to Linz." That was the point at which music came in, as an expression of anguished disappointment. When this shot is repeated it comes again in strikingly abbreviated form. It cuts off at the point where, earlier, it had developed as a sorrowing reflection on Stefan's infidelity. We may see frustration replaced by fulfilment. But it is an equal part of the pattern that an extended assessment of events is replaced by silence.
Staircase One [*9] was embedded in one of the letter's most extended, almost garrulous passages of commentary in which the words spoken by Lisa became something close to an interior monologue accompanying her exploration of the now empty rooms of the home she had had to leave. It was part of a lengthy passage in which the only significant, dramatically salient, words were those of the commentary that culminated in the first return to the present and Stefan's reading image on "You who have always lived so freely... " The shot's vital context, then, included its context in Lisa's reflections.
Such a context is entirely absent from Staircase Two. In the sequences depicting the love affair the commentary tails off at the moment when Stefan is at last about to notice Lisa waiting in the snow outside the apartment building. It yields to the music of the street singers here [*10], and it does not return until Stefan's departure for Milan and the letter's thoughts about his promise to return in two weeks: "How little you knew yourself. That train was taking you out of my life." It is as if Lisa is overflowing with words to express disappointment and regret. She can never come to the end of "If only..." But she has nothing to say about fulfilment [*11]. We may choose to understand her speechlessness as an expression of the sense that rapture is beyond words. But it is one of the functions of the pattern of repetition and reversal to open up other ways of responding.
Lisa's silence goes with the absence of her witnessing foreground presence. It is a silence about her place in the stream of Stefan's lovers as well as about the consummation of her passion. We may relate it to her presentation of her first disillusionment. What had Lisa learned from the sight of Stefan's mistress to persuade her that there was "nothing left for me"? She already knew that many of his friends - most of them - were women. Staircase One already condensed some significant repetitions, of the staircase itself as the central emblem of the routines of Stefan's life, of Lisa's overhead view of adult sexuality (when she emerged at the top of the stairs to surprise her mother in embrace with Herr Kastner) and of Lisa's spying from above on Stefan's nocturnal activity. This last was in continuity with the instances of the illicit (stealing, hiding) in Lisa's appropriation of Stefan's music into her fantasies when "though [because?] you didn't know it, you were giving me some of the happiest hours of my life." Happiness in fantasy prepares the misery of disillusion not because Lisa finds out that Stefan is a sexual being, but because his timing is catastrophic for her. The perfection of Lisa's romantic fantasy required Stefan to be ready for her at precisely the moment when she was ready for him, ready "to throw myself at your feet, and cling to you and never leave you." For Lisa, as for Stefan, the pursuit of perfection means a life defined by disappointment.
What is it that encourages me to talk of the absence of commentary on the scenes of romantic fulfilment as Lisa's silence? We have to understand that the events of the past, insofar as Stefan is told of them, are recounted in the text of the letter. "Night after night I returned to the same spot, but you never noticed me until one evening..." This must be a sentence that continues in the letter, whose continuation the film has replaced with images. Sensibly, then, Lisa is not silent about the events of Staircase Two - only unheard. But here I want to return to my start. Ophuls and Koch devised a form that baffles the attempt at a sensible reading. My argument is that the intention, and certainly the effect, was to create an unstable set of frames so that while a story is told, with events whose occurrence is not to be doubted, the definition of their significance is never pursued at the cost of suggestion. The film's lucidity is a lucidity in presenting ranges of possibility, through what it can omit to specify as well as through what it can show.
The refusal to confine flashback and voice-over within a coherent convention gave the film access to the metaphorical possibilities of these devices, allowing the passages of speech and silence, explicitness and reticence, to register expressively. At the same time there was a partial submission to limitations of viewpoint that seemed to assign Lisa a role in determining what was to be seen of her life and of Stefan's, so that opportunities were created for veiling motivations and for leaving thoughts, feelings and attitudes open to speculation. For instance when Stefan comes to the photographs that Lisa has enclosed to stand as his son's biography, it is clear that he is moved by these glimpses of a child he will never meet; his use of a magnifying glass speaks of a hunger for knowledge that the snapshots cannot satisfy. But nothing tells us how far Stefan attends to Lisa's presence in one of these images. And when Lisa tells of her marriage and says that Stefan knows who her husband is, we are without guidance about the extent of Stefan's appreciation that this letter is from that woman whose husband has challenged him to a duel - the woman who, we shall shortly discover, came calling a few days ago after an encounter at the Opera.
The masking of Stefan within Lisa's viewpoints is particularly powerful in Staircase Two, for Stefan's attitude here is perhaps the most crucial issue in our sense of what is being repeated and what has been transformed. We are shown that Lisa could be seen as just one in the succession of Stefan's women. We are not told whether Stefan sees her in that way. As a result we are given no hint about what Stefan's response might have been if Lisa had been able to seek him out with the news of her pregnancy after his return from Milan.
Stefan's leaving is able to be read by Lisa as a confirmation of her prophecy (in the Prater ballroom, when Stefan had asked for her promise) "I won't be the one to vanish." This terrible form of words predicted betrayal while recognising itself only as a loving vow of fidelity. Unacknowledged in the letter, but confirmed by what we see as clearly as the repetition in Staircase Two, is that Lisa is each time the one who vanishes - to Linz, into the charity hospital, and away in flight from the final sad encounter. Stefan's reaction to the last disappearance is withheld from us, and is something to which Lisa gives no apparent thought, but it is an issue brought to mind by the reaction that we do see - the servant John's witnessing her departure as she crosses him on the stairs.
The patterns of revelation and masking enabled by the film's structure allow Lisa to speak as if her actions and inactions are perfectly explained by her love for Stefan and his son. Other possibilities are built into the picture's fabric but not enforced, for instance an element of revenge in Lisa's presentation of the photographs of young Stefan and her reflections on the happiness he brought her. It becomes a possibility too, but not a dogmatic assertion, that Lisa's Ideal was by her definition a man who would disappoint her, and that Stefan's Ideal was by his definition a woman he would never find. Ophuls and Koch discovered a form that avoided sentimentality while negotiating the danger of a merely cynical denial of romance - one that would only have sneered at yearnings for love and transcendence. The film's unique blending of strength of pattern with openness results in our being shown the failures of Lisa's vision and of Stefan's without being made complacent about the perfection our own.
* * *
Reprinted from CineAction! no. 52 by permission of V.F. Perkins and Susan Morrison of CineAction!
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The visual repetition: Stefan returns to his apartment with Lisa.
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1] There's also, more elliptically, "We'll revisit the scenes of our youth".
2] In the course of this sequence there occurs an image which does seem to be taken up by Ophuls in the parallel passage after the married Lisa's flight from Stefan's apartment. An overhead shot that sees Laura walking to a park bench beneath the statuary of a war memorial finds an echo (minus some grotesquely phallic elements) in Ophuls' high-angle on Lisa as she walks across a deserted square beneath a fountain. The prominence of railway scenes in Letter from an Unknown Woman might also be thought to owe something to Lean's film. The shooting script envisaged a scene in that crucial Brief Encounter setting, the station buffet, when Lisa has seen her son onto the train but has not yet made the move to set out in search of Stefan (Wexman and Hollinger, ed., 'Letter from an Unknown Woman' Max Ophuls, director, Rutgers U.P., 1986, p 148.)
3] Wrongly, but understandably - since it is so easy to underestimate the inventiveness of filmmakers.
4] It is not used in the same way at the start of the final flashback. By then, Lisa has become Frau Stauffer; she has that name because "you know who my husband is".
5] Stanley Cavell, Contesting Tears, University of Chicago Press, 1996 p109;
George M Wilson, Narration in Light, Johns Hopkins University Press,1986, p125.
6] Cavell, 1996, p81
7] Ophuls' brilliance of craft shows in the way he gives us our first sight of Lisa, dwarfing the actress's height by framing her face at the bottom of the window through which she gazes into the removals van.
8] And attempting to manage a cigarette. This opening shot establishes smoking as a motif. Throughout the dialogue the foreground of the image is dominated by the white-gloved hand in which the one of Stefan's friends nearest the camera holds a cigarette. Thereafter few of the men of the film are without something to smoke in their hands or in their mouths. (John the manservant and Lisa's young Lieutenant in Linz are the notable exceptions.) Cigarettes recur through the film as emblems of enslavement and unfulfilled appetite. At the start Stefan is a chain smoker. By the end he seems to have found something to displace the habit. It is possible that the smoking motif was Ophuls's way of implicating himself with the men of the film and specially with Stefan. To judge from photographs Ophuls was quite a smoker and according to a number of reports he was quite a womaniser.
9] I am adopting 'Staircase One' and 'Staircase Two' to identify the first and second of the repeated pair because it would be a distorting inaccuracy to describe them as the first and second of the staircase shots. It is a vital fact that Staircase One is already the repetition of a familiar setting.
10] For the record, their song is 'Nur für Natur' from the operetta 'Der Lustige Krieg' (The Merry War) by Johann Strauss II - worth specifying in order to correct a misunderstanding propounded by Virginia Wright Wexman and taken up by Susan M. White in her book 'The Cinema of Max Ophuls' (Columbia U.P., 1995), that the film 'contains not a single word of German'. Both writers give a lot of weight to this strange assertion. The film presents a riotous patchwork of languages and accents, and it incorporates plenty of German words. There may be food for thought in the choice of a German word for fire - 'brand' - as the surname for Lisa's Stefan.
11] Of course it would have been a formidable task to find something for her to say that would not have caused an explosion at the Breen Office, but Ophuls and Koch were equal to formidable tasks.
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