Nostalgia, Irony, and the Nature of Love

Lester H. Hunt

University of Wisconsin


        I would like to thank Ben Singer and the participants in the University of Wisconsin-Madison colloquium series, as well as Tom Wartenberg and Murray Smith, editors of a special issue of The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, for helpful comments on earlier drafts of parts of the monograph.  Ben was especially generous with his time in helping me to learn how to capture the all-important illustrations.  My good friend and fellow Nietzsche scholar Imtiaz Moosa helped with German texts.  At various stages in this project, Noël Carroll gave me advice that was even more valuable than I knew at the time.  The staff at the Wisconsin Historical Society, where the papers of Howard Koch are archived, were very courteous and helpful.  Jeff Rankin, who helped me find my way around the 127 boxes of John Houseman papers at the Charles Young Memorial Research Library at UCLA also gets my sincere thanks.  In addition, I would like to thank the women at the Oregon Public Library in Oregon Wisconsin for the patience and good humor with which, over the years, they have lugged at least a thousand pounds of special order books to the counter for me.  Passages from Chapters I, III, and IV appeared in somewhat different form in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (Winter 2006).


A Note of Explanation

        One thing that makes this monograph different from most other books on film is the disciplinary home base from which I attack my subject.  I approach Letter from an Unknown Woman (hereafter called Letter for short) from the point of view of philosophy.  One thing this means is, well, just what you would expect it to mean: I will be talking about the ideas in the film, and about the position it takes regarding one of the perennial questions of philosophy, one that is literally as old as Plato.  This question is: What is the love?  I will also be touching on the question of how the ideas in the film are related to those of some classic theorists of the subject: namely Plato, Stendhal, and José Ortega y Gasset.  

        It means more than this, however.  Philosophers have always (again, at least since Plato) been obsessed with questions that have the form, “What is x?”  What is nostalgia?  What is a film maker?  What is irony?  From time to time I make forays into questions like these.  In each case, my intent will be to add clarity to our understanding of this film and to avoid errors.  I hope people who approach this film from other disciplines will find it helpful, and that it will enhance further contributions from other disciplines.

        Although I have striven here for scholarly respectability, this is also a personal book.  It is by no means an exhaustive or definitive treatment of Letter.  There is a great deal more to be said about this film from other points of view.  I have to admit that I use it as a banner to wave in fighting for some favorite causes of mine.  Letter is modern without being modernist, ironic without being cold or nihilistic, romantic without being sentimental or insane.  It is a refutation by counterexample to historicist arguments to the effect that such works could not exist in the twentieth century.  It also presents grounds for hope that they might exist again.  

* * *

        Finally, it might be helpful, for some readers at least, if I begin with a brief summary of what I intend to say.

        Chapter I:  The Lost World of Stefan Zweig  This rather brief chapter is a discussion of the life and work of the author of the story on which the film was based.  Stefan Zweig’s career can be seen as a sort of study in the passion that dominates the film:  nostalgia.  Nostalgia is not always a petty self-indulgence.  Sometimes, it can be a profound existential predicament, as when it is directed at the values of a lost world.  The film presents us with a lost world, and presents it nostalgically.  Among the values of this lost world is an attitude toward art and artists (most particularly, toward music and musicians) that is very different from the one we find in our own world.  This is crucial for a proper understanding of Lisa, the protagonist of the film, and her attitude toward the character Stefan Brand, who is a musician.  Her actions are much more sympathetic if viewed through the norms of her own world than they are if viewed through those of our own

        Chapter II:  Who Made It?  In this chapter, I trace the process by which the film emerged from the fragile short story on which it was based. I attempt to answer the question, whether there is a person whom we should think of as “the” artist who made this film, as its author, if you prefer.  I argue that this is one film that we really should think of as having been made by a group of people.  This is true in spite of the fact that, as others have shown, this film is in many ways typical of the work of Max Ophuls, its director.  I show that it also fits, in interesting and illuminating ways, into the work of Howard Koch, its screenwriter.  It also, I suggest, can be understood in the context of the work of its producer, John Houseman.  The project was not dominated by a single personality who had the “final say” over what would be in the film and what would not.  The secret behind the film’s greatness, if there is one, is that the team that made it consisted of people who, in various different ways, were perfectly matched.  Above all, they understood the unique nature of the project and had the same conception of the nature and value of that uniqueness.  

        Chapter III:  The Lover’s Gaze.  One very characteristic position in which we see Lisa from time to time is that of viewing Stefan, her love object, through apertures or barriers of some sort (a pane of glass, a doorway, etc.).  This leads naturally to the view that Lisa is essentially a daydreamer, who is in love with a fantasy-image of Stefan and not the real person.  We might conclude (as some commentators have done) that the classic theory of love that applies to her is that of Stendhal, which holds that the object of love is not a real person at all, but a collection of imaginary “perfections” that are mistakenly imputed to a real person by the lover.  In this chapter, I argue that the facts about Lisa that we observe are susceptible of a completely different interpretation.  Lisa’s relation to Stefan is for the most part based on non-interactive observation.  Much depends on whether we think that knowledge requires interaction, or whether pure contemplation is sufficient.  In classic theories of love, there is at least one theory, namely that of Plato, which maintains that pure contemplation is what knowledge really is.  So far, the point of view of the film could be either Stendhalian or Platonic.  In the next chapter I argue that it is more interesting than that.  It represents a third view that is radically different from both.

        Chapter IV:  The Paradox of the Unknown Lover.  The argument of this chapter contains three different threads:  1) a survey of various seemingly meaningful aspects of the film (including some visual motifs of the sort that Robin Wood discussed, and in addition the film’s pervasive sense of irony), 2) an analysis of the sharp contrast between the character of Lisa and that of Stefan, and 3) an attempt to construct notions of love and of knowledge that fits the relationship between these characters.  The upshot of (3) is that, in this film, one of the absolute requirements of knowledge of other persons is persistence of attention.  This absorbed attention is precisely what love is.  Thus, contrary to Stendhal, love is actually a precondition of knowledge.  It is because of his inability to love, his incapacity for persistence of any sort, that Stefan does not know Lisa.  This very same persistence, what Stefan lacks, is precisely what Lisa possesses, to an almost monstrous degree.  The outcome of thread (1) is that the film presents Lisa as a prototype of the creative artist, as one who synthesizes the chaotic materials afforded by experience and life into a meaningful whole:  this is the effect that her letter has on Stefan.  The letter represents revelation through artifice.  

        Chapter V:  Explaining a Miracle.  In this brief concluding chapter, I point out that if the film is as densely meaningful, as complex and coherent, as I represent it to be in Chapters III and IV, this requires an explanation.  Films are made by groups of people.  It is as if I claim to have found a Hamlet that was written by a committee.  How is that possible?  My answer is the one I have given in Chapter II:  that this was a very unusual committee.