“Letter From an Unknown Woman” the Movie by Max Ophüls


Modern movies are characterized by a number of techniques and features like unpredictable camera movements or lighting that attract attention and fascinate a viewer. Several decades ago, filmmakers did not have access to such a variety of options and followed the standards, including effective camera shots and definite camera angles. However, in the middle of the 1900s, many successful films were created, proving that there could be something else in addition to camera work that made movies remarkable. According to George Wilson, a properly chosen strategy of narration is a key to success that helps “shape the way in which we understand the characters’’ overall behavior and their circumstances” (142). Narration in the film is usually unpredictable, and the presence of complex narrative structures may confuse or motivate. In the movie Letter From an Unknown Woman, Max Ophüls proved a contradictory nature of the narration, questioning the role of the voice-over narrator through camera shots and the plot. The goal of this paper is to describe the concept of narration from the point of view of Wilson and to use Ophüls’ Letter as an example for determining a narrator.

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Narration by Wilson

During this week, the reading by Wilson about narrators and narration turns out to be a good opportunity for students to understand the true worth of this technique in filmmaking. The narrative is frequently present in human life, but many people do not pay much attention to the way it is developed. The goal of narration is to introduce the way of how the content (data) should be understood and interpreted within a particular context. Therefore, one of the main arguments Wilson includes “an opposition between subjective and objective” in the story (126). On the one hand, narration enforces the description of characters, their relationships, and their intentions. On the other hand, narration could complicate the way a person views characters and the plot. The chosen reading, as well as an entire idea of narration, is complex due to the impossibility to understand how to define and use this technique properly.

Following a cinematic point of view, the concept of narration has several important characteristics. Any filmic narration that usually gains the form of visual narration has two elements – an activity and an agent. An activity is an action that is “conducted on screen”, and an agent is “a filmic someone” who “addresses the audience through the image track” (Wilson 127). In some movies, narrators are placed within the story, and sometimes, narrators exist outside the story world, influencing the camera’s positions and the scope of emotions. In other words, films may have direct narrators, who are evident participants of the story, and indirect narrators, whose role remains unclear throughout the movie.

Another significant aspect of narration in film is based on the point of view that is chosen for sharing data. Wilson underlines that narration should be analyzed from two major perspectives, first-person and third-person (126). First-person narration is used to represent the position of the character and his or her visual experiences, mentioning what is seen or felt and what emotions emerge (Wilson 126). Third-person narration is represented as an invisible or hidden behind-the-camera individual who witnesses but does not participate in the events. Although such narrations help introduce an objective story with a number of options being identified, its main shortage is the impossibility of conveying emotions and personal experiences to a viewer.

There is another way to describe narration in film and strengthen an understanding of the concept of a visual narrator. Wilson recommends addressing the position by Susan Sontag and considering the distinction between self-conscious and self-assertive types. To narrate self-consciously means to use reflexive forms of communication and different dramatized means. As a rule, first-person film narration is organized in this way, focusing on subjective facts and feelings. Self-assertive narration is introduced in regard to personal qualities and attitudes to a situation. First-person and third-person narrators could choose this form of communication to be able to work with different sources of information and define many perspectives within the same context.

Complex Narrative Structures in Letter

The chosen chapters of the book Narration in Light by Wilson create a solid theoretical background for the analysis of the movie Letter From an Unknown Woman directed by Ophüls in 1948. This black-and-white dramatic film introduces a story of a woman, Lisa Berndle, who insanely falls in love with a neighbor, musician Stefan Brand. From the very beginning, it turns out to be evident that Lisa is the narrator of the story, whose letter to Stefan serves as the main source of information. Her words, interpretations of the events, and memories help to visualize the story of their relationships with “its own reason beyond our poor understanding” (Letter From an Unknown Woman). However, Wilson does not define Lisa’s narrative voice as a leading one, underling that “these relations are fairly complex” and “this cinematic narration declares itself to be a largely independent re-viewing of her past” (106). There are several examples of why complex subsidiary narrative structures cannot be ignored in the movie.

In the story created by Ophüls, nothing is as clear as it could seem at first sight. Some viewers could use the letter as the main reason for choosing Lisa as the first-person narrator with her self-conscious intention to be introduced to Stefan. She is confident that “the course of our lives can be changed” and that “nothing happens by chance” because “every moment is measured; every step is counted” (Letter From an Unknown Woman). Lisa wants to share her story with Stefan, as well as the viewer, with the only purpose to show that he was managed to find what he was looking for but did not recognize it. She explained the idea of two birthdays – the day of physical birth and the birth of consciousness (Letter From an Unknown Woman). Being socially isolated for a long period, Lisa was admired for the beauty of the things, styles, and culture brought by Stefan the day he moved their house. She believed that the presence of Stefan in her life was the major motivating force to study, look neatly, be more graceful, and use good manners.

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All these examples and facts help build a clear statement that this movie’s narrator is Lisa with her true love for a man who does not deserve it. It was Wilson who explains a “complex structure of fantasy and desire” of a woman who is ready to sacrifice her life for “an unworthy male” (104). However, at the same time, Lisa, being so deeply in love with Stefan, could hardly present such an ambiguous image of her man as a narrator. The viewer of the movie sees that Stefan is never perfect, and his inability to remember women and develop one-night relationships is disgusting.

Therefore, a doubt emerges if Lisa is a true narrator of this story. Wilson finds the answer to the question, introducing John, Stefan’s butler, as a real third-person narrator of the story (125). In the movie, he is not clearly identified, but his participation in the lives of the main characters is undeniable. It is John, who sees and remembers Lisa as soon as she meets Stefan. It is John, who knows why his master does not deserve a young lady. Finally, it is John, who sings the letter when it reaches its recipient. Following the recommendations offered by Wilson and watching the movie Letter From an Unknown Woman thoroughly, it is possible to determine who narrates the film and understand the complexity of its narrative structures. Lisa could be a perfect first-person narrator of the chosen movie, but its lessons and interpretations go beyond a one-sided perspective, whose actions and decisions were focused around a single person.

Film Narration and Wilson’s Analysis

Wilson’s analysis is a unique opportunity to understand why narration in filmmaking has to be properly developed and explained by directors. The movies offered by Ophüls like Letter From an Unknown Woman challenge the viewer in the necessity to recognize a narrator and true messages of the story. However, during this course, many other works have been recognized, the evaluation of which could be considerably improved with the help of Wilson’s ideas. For example, in such movies as Shane by George Stevens or O Brother, Where Art Thou? by the Coen brothers, the narration is closely related to the plot. Main characters meet people, exist in different situations, and share their experiences via camera with properly chosen movements. Wilson’s classification of narrators enhances an understanding of the directors’ purposes in making movies. The lives of characters are described along with their interests, dreams, and decisions. However, third-person visual narration in O Brother, Where Art Thou? presents the camera-observer interpretations of the events and provides a viewer with an opportunity to stay objective. Quite the opposite, Letter from an Unknown Woman does not cause similar emotions because of the complex narration structures.


In general, the concept of narration is one of the most complex and interesting techniques that are used in filmmaking. On the one hand, it is not difficult to choose a narrator and develop cinematic narration with specific characters, situations, and outcomes. On the other hand, the example of Letter from an Unknown Woman that even an ordinary, first-person narration (seeming at first sight) could become a story with complex narrative structures. Narration in the film has a specific purpose to expose and summarize plot points and help a viewer to understand the content and move to another scene. Sometimes, it is easy to identify a narrator and watch the movie, following the chosen perspective and the position of a character. In some movies, the narration seems to be absent, and it is a responsibility of a viewer to interpret dialogues between characters, notice unremarkable things, and combine the ideas. Wilson introduces a credible framework of how to analyze film narratives and understand the content from multiple perspectives.

Works Cited

Letter From an Unknown Woman. Directed by Max Ophüls, performances by Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan, Rampart Productions, 1948.

Wilson, George M. Narration in Light: Studies in Cinematic Point of View. John Hopkins University Press, 1986.

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