Narration in the Max Ophuls’ Film “Letter From an Unknown Woman”


The notion of narration has always been a subject of controversy within the community of filmmakers and philosophers. Who narrates the movie, whether the outlook is entirely based on a character’s perception, or whether the narrator is placed outside the world where events are happening are some of the questions film theorists have attempted to answer. One cinematic work that many critics discuss in the context of narrativity is Max Ophuls’ “Letter from an Unknown Woman.” Because of sophisticated work on shot perspectives, it is not evident who the narrator of the movie is. In some scenes, it is valid to believe viewers see the events from Lisa’s subjective outlook. In other cases, however, the perspective is switched. George Wilson’s description of a narrator, which is utterly separate from the notion of the implied filmmaker, helps viewers understand from whose perspectives the scenes are seen. Not only it solves the problem of identifiability of narrators, but also helps determine the intentions of movies.

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Narration in Film

All films, be they a documentary or a fictional work, convey a story to the audience. Therefore, the notion of narration is fundamental in cinema and is one of the most critical parts of any movie. Although the word “narration” is often associated with the verbal telling of a story, in cinema, the narrative can take many forms, such as showing something to viewers or using music to emphasize some details. However, not all visual representations can be considered as narratives – there should be an element of causality. For instance, a scene of a cat merely walking may not be viewed as a story because of the absence of cause-and-effect sequences.

The complex nature of film narration extends beyond establishing whether there is storytelling in place or not. Some theorists claim that there should be a narrator for a story to be told. Most, however, object to this opinion stating that sometimes objects in a movie tell a story only because of the audience’s perception of the object (Gaut 201). Despite this objection, it is still critical that one understands different models of narrators.

Types of narrators can differ dramatically in their degree of awareness, involvement in events, bias, emotional attachment to certain characters, visibility for the reader, originality of individual speech manners, and a number of other characteristics. In addition, the work may have a whole system of narrators, more or less explicitly presented in the text. One of the oldest models is viewing the narrator as an invisible observer through the eyes of whom viewers see the events in the film. The narrative point of view in a literary text refers to the position of the narrator in relation to the events described (Wilson 126). Quite common in narratology is the analogy between the role of the narrator of a literary text and the operator in the cinema, which can shoot from some external point of view, covering the entire event space, can be in the center of the action, holding a hand camera, or may use several cameras.

The narrator may simultaneously act as a character and designate himself or herself using the first-person pronoun. Typically, this type of narrator makes it possible to adequately express the thoughts and feelings of the narrator, hidden and inaccessible to the outside observer and opens the way to various forms of self-observation and reflection of the character (Gaut 204). Often the narrator is a hero whose thoughts are available to the reader, but usually not to other characters. The first-person narrative predisposes the construction of the narrative with a particular choice of vocabulary, colloquialism, and other linguistic features (Wilson 126). There are also other models of narrators that allow viewers different levels of immersion in the film (Gaut 205). While each of the models attempts to solve the shortcomings of others, new questions continue to arise.

Wilson’s Description of Narration

Existing models of narrators – as an observer, as a guide, and as an image-maker – propose almost all variants that can be employed in a movie. George Wilson, however, contemplates this issue beyond just providing a narrator with a specific role (Wilson 126). He claims that the conventional definition of narration is obscured and does not give the viewers a full picture of what is taking place in a scene or a movie (Wilson 144). Wilson states that most often, the choice of narrative mode is based on choosing whether the narrative should be subjective or objective (Wilson 126). In the former case, the filmmaker may select a first-person narration, or a third-person if he or she chooses the latter mode (Wilson 126). Thus, Wilson believes the most common way of understanding the notion of narrative is assessing it in the context of a cinematic point of view.

Wilson’s view of narration and narrators can be demonstrated by discussing his objection to Kawin’s understanding of narrative. Kawin believed that “there is always who speaks the film” (Wilson 134). In other words, from his perspective, a film is most often composed of scenes that demonstrate the personal views of an observer. The one who originates the narrational assertions and is credited with personal qualities is the narrator of the film, according to Kawin (Wilson 130). Wilson, however, objects to this opinion by claiming that the foundations of literary narration are based on the idea that narrators and implied authors are separate entities and should not be confused (Wilson 134). These ideas can be transferred to film-making by introducing the existence of an implied filmmaker (Wilson 135). As in literary works, there is no valid reason to believe that the feelings and personality of an implied filmmaker, which is in one way or another expressed in the movie, can be granted the role of a narrator.

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Whether or not it is necessary to use the concept of the implied filmmaker is still a controversial topic. On the one hand, its introduction seems inevitable to explain certain features of the film and set against the background of a discrepancy with the figures of both the real author and the narrator. On the other hand, opponents indicate that for narration, the implied author turns out to be an unnecessary component (a narrator is sufficient) (Wilson 135). For interpretation purposes, it either coincides with the real author, gives rise to the illusion of intentionality, or the idea that the author’s intention entirely determines the perception of the text (Wilson 136). An analysis of the origin of this concept and the discussion about its value itself suggests that the solution to the problem rests on a discussion of a number of more general topics. Namely, some relate to questions about the status of narrativity and the role of the author as a whole. In addition, in order to try to work out acceptable answers, some methodological requirements and limitations should be introduced.

All knowledge about the narrator should be extracted from the text and should not be brought from outside to explain the film events. This thesis can be used to summarize Wilson’s opinion on narration. Therefore, the thesis suggests that the figure of the narrator filmmaker should be deduced only from the analysis of the movie and introduced as a necessary condition for its interpretation and explanation. Understanding the persona of a filmmaker is not a necessity to adequately perceive the events in the film.

Narrative Structures in “Letter from an Unknown Woman”

Max Ophuls’ work “Letter from an unknown woman” based on the novella with the same name, despite not acquiring box office success, is an important movie from the film theory perspective. Wilson dedicated an entire chapter in his book to analyzing the role of the narrator in the movie. As he emphasized, “Letter from an unknown woman” is shot in such a way that it is not initially evident who the narrator is in the film (Wilson 104). While most of the film-makers attempt to either portray the events as protagonists’ subjective perceptions or objective understanding on behalf of an image-maker, Ophuls regularly switches between two outlooks (Wilson 103). The movie balances subjectivity and objectivity by using two opposing narrative structures – first-person and third-person perspectives.

Because the movie partially employs a third-person narrative, it is critical to remember Wilson’s thesis that narrators and implied authors should not be confused. However, it is challenging to establish the identity of the narrator when the perspective is switched from Lisa’s outlook. By putting his own thesis in action, Wilson seems to have identified the narrator. Careful analysis of the text, especially concluding scenes, when John writes the name of the “unknown woman” for Brand, points out that John is an invisible observer from whose perspective most events are seen (Wilson 125). Thus, Wilson seems to have proven his opinion about narration and that all-sufficient information can be obtained only by analyzing the text itself and not considering the implied author of the work.

Other Movies through Wilson’s Prism

The notion of genre, too, had existed long before the first movies started to be made. Today, genres are used to outline movies and relate them to a particular class. When a movie is bound to a genre, viewers immediately gain some general information about the work because genres are mostly used “in the analysis of the relation between groups of films, the cultures in which they are made, and cultures in which they are exhibited” (Tudor 10). Despite attempts to provide viewers with some level of knowledge before they even see a movie, genres fail to establish the intention of the work (Tudor 2). That is because there is no clear definition of the term – In some cases, it is a collection of recurring themes and actions; in others, it is an intention (Tudor 2). For instance, a “horror” movie intends to horrify; however, the “western” genre is not bound to any intention. This gap can be filled by identifying the narrator and determining his or her intentions.

There are examples of western movies that challenge the viewers’ perception of works of this genre. Sam Peckinpah’s “Ride the High Country” is one such example, where imagery is delivered through shooting narrative perspectives (Tudor 10). In another famous movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” by John Ford, the author’s intention is to jeopardize the role of myth in Western legends. To do it successfully, the movie is shot as if the observing narrator is situated right in the center of the events taking place. When viewers see from the perspective of the narrator that observes the events from within, the scenes may be perceived as truthful and reliable. Thus, the role of the narrator is critical not only because the narrator is the one telling the story, but because depending on who the narrator is, the events in the movie may be perceived differently.


George Wilson has not always been a film theorist – he initially was a professor of philosophy. However, his ideas have helped clarify some points about narrations and narrators that were previously obscured. In particular, he proposed that the narrator should not be taken as an implied author of the work and vice-versa. The notion of the implied author had existed before Wilson’s contemplations, but he expanded this idea to filmography. As a practical application of his theory, Wilson managed to identify the primary narrator in the movie “Letter from an Unknown Woman.” Careful analysis of the contents of the work is sufficient to form an adequate opinion of the movie, and no knowledge of the work’s author is required. Furthermore, analysis of the narrator’s intentions is enough to determine the intention of the movie. This strategy may solve most genres’ issues, where there is no one intention.

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Works Cited

Gaut, Berys. A Philosophy of Cinematic Art. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Tudor, Andrew. “Genre”. Film Genre Reader II. Edited by Barry Keith Grant. University of Texas Press, 1995, pp. 3-10.

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

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