Some Thoughts on Liebelei and Letter from an Unknown Woman

In Liebelei (1933), one of the motifs that undercuts the idea that this is simply a tearjerker is that of the key. Until Fritz (Wolfgang Liebeneiner) finally leaves the Baroness von Eggersdorf (Olga Tschechowa), the Baroness holds the key to his apartment. In the reality of turn-of-the-century Vienna, this fact would have barred both Fritz and his roommate, Theo (George Rigaud), from entering their own apartment without summoning the porter, who therefore makes appearances often in the film. Quite aside from verisimilitude, however, this emphasis on the key indicates how much power the Baroness holds over Fritz, a power from which he wants to be released. When he finally leaves the Baroness, the key is once again emphasized, showing that Fritz is finally his own master. In a stunning scene in the film, the Baron von Eggersdorf (Gustaf Grundgens), who has discovered that Fritz and his wife have had an affair, goes to Fritz’s apartment to challenge him to a duel. He does not allow Fritz to let him out of the apartment (keys also locked apartments from the inside), however; instead, he twists the key four or five times, off-screen, the grating of the key in the lock amplified, and then throws the key on the floor. This is his official challenge, the key substituting for the more traditional glove. The key is clearly a phallic image here and throughout the film. The Baroness is a phallic woman, who has castrated Fritz, and for this reason, quite aside from being married, is the “wrong” woman for him. Christine (Magda Schneider), a woman devoted to Fritz’s well-being, is the “right” woman. Fritz falls in love with Christine, though he has no intention of doing so, on their long walk back to her apartment. He has a headache, and Christine pours 4711 cologne on his handkerchief for him to hold against his forehead to soothe his pain. They utter few words, yet it is clear that he has fallen for her. The Baron claims ultimate phallic power by twisting Fritz’s key violently and disposing of it, foreshadowing Fritz’s death, which also takes place off-screen. We hear one gun-shot and know that Fritz is dead.

Fritz, part of a new order of man believing in romantic love—in short, a feminized man–cannot survive the established patriarchal order of arranged marriages, codes, and sets of rules, in which “love” does not, and cannot, enter in.

In Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), the incommensurable worlds and incompossible desires of man and woman are shown often through details of mise en scene. There are many delightful visual motifs, but one major one is St. Stefan’s cathedral, which looms in the background near–yes–Stefan’s (Louis Jourdan) apartment, where Lisa (Joan Fontaine) has waited faithfully, night after night, for Stefan to emerge, his emergence quickening her desire, like that of a groupie waiting outside a stage door. The outsized model of St. Stefan’s is hard to miss, a gigantic phallus looming on the horizon of this setting, the place where Lisa worships. If this movie were re-made today, it would be about women’s adulation of rock stars, and rock stars’ addiction to one-night stands with a multitude of nameless women. In fact, when Lisa realizes that Stefan has stopped playing music (he has long locked his piano and doesn’t know where the key is), the “scales fall from her eyes,” and she sees Stefan for what he is, a seedy womanizer/seducer who has lost any possible allure. As she flees his apartment, she bumps into his double, a drunken gentleman who wants to pick her up. She realizes that she has devoted her life–taking dancing lessons, reading up on composers’ lives and memorizing their musical scores, attending Stefan’s concerts, following Stefan and hoping to meet him again after their one-night stand–to an image that is not commensurate with his reality. Without his music, he loses his star-aura, and becomes a shabby, dissipated figure. Lisa’s horror is simply realizing that this figure is the one to which she has devoted her whole life.

In anatomizing gendered passion and desire in Letter, Ophuls forces us to examine the fantasms we create when we say we are “in love” with another human being.

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About Therese

Feminist, film scholar, animal lover, licensed and bonded cat-sitter.
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