The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)
Directed by: Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell
Written by: Dennis Arundell, Emeric Pressburger, Jules Barbier, Michael Powell
Starring: Ann Ayars, Ludmilla Tchérina, Moira Shearer, Robert Roundseville
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY from Studiocanal
RUNNING TIME: 134 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
In Nuremberg, Hoffmann, a poet, is in the audience at a performance by ballerina Stella, of “The Ballet of the Enchanted Dragonfly”. She sends Hoffmann a note asking him to meet her after the performance, but the note is intercepted by his rival for her affections, Councillor Lindorf. The dejected Hoffmann goes to the local tavern in the interval, where he tells the story of a clown, Kleinzach, and three tales of his past loves — Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia, while getting drunk….
The work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, which ranges greatly in subject matter but which is usually distinguished by an imagination and a visual flair far exceeding most of their contemporaries, encompasses some of the great classics of British cinema, most notably The Red Shoes, The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, A Matter Of Life And Death and, minus Pressburger, Peeping Tom. The Tales of Hoffmann is far less popular and seen than the films I’ve just mentioned, something that’s understandable due to its very nature as a merging of the three art forms of opera, ballet and cinema, but it’s just as striking an achievement – in fact I’d say that it represents the very peak of their artistry even if many other works are undeniably more entertaining on a basic level. I’m going to now state something that might seem strange considering the nature of the film and it being a film I love very much; I don’t particularly like opera. Certain songs and pieces of music I find to be wonderful, but you’d have to seriously bribe me to watch or listen to a whole one. It’s just an art form I struggle to enjoy, though there’s still time. Yet I’ve watched through the entirety of The Tales Of Hoffmann four times totally spellbound. It’s one of the great fantasy movies, enrapturing the viewer in a phantasmagoric world where colour, set design and dance combine to create art that can genuinely intoxicate, so much so that it doesn’t matter much if you don’t understand everything that’s going on – and this is something which is likely to happen on a first viewing because many of the words are sung at high pitch at top speed. Therefore a second watch is virtually revelatory some of the time, because one picks up a great deal more, things become clear, and we realise that what we’re watching is a meditation on the nature of love, in particular three particular stages that many of us experience. Some may find it to be a rather misogynist view, but I think it’s deeper than that.
The origins date back to 1851 when Offenbach saw a play, “Les contes fantastiques d’Hoffmann”, written by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, based on three stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann; “The Sandman”, “Rath Krespel” and “The Adventures of New Year’s Eve”. Four years later, he learned that Barbier had adapted the play and set it to music by Hector Salomon, and eventually decided that he could do better, but had a premonition that he would die prior to completion. On 5 October 1880, he was found dead with the manuscript in his hand, just four months before the opening. Therefore there was much variation with performances, with acts ranging from two to four and being moved about. In the later years of his partnership with Pressburger, Powell became interested in what he termed “a composed film”, a marriage of image to music; the finale of Black Narcissus and the ballet sequence of The Red Shoes were early steps. He was inspired to do The Tales of Hoffmann after hearing composer Thomas Beecham play the entire score on the piano while singing all the lyrics, and edited his footage entirely to the music. Some omissions were done for time, and the character of Lindorf was made into a person who didn’t sing. But the public unsurprisingly weren’t ready for this and it was a major flop even with 14 minutes cut out by Powell himself, though the complete 138-minute version was available in 16mm black and white early television prints and 16mm Kodachrome colour rental prints, while the full soundtrack was available for many years. The 2014 4k restoration which was used for both this Studio Canal release and the Region A Criterion version restores some early bits of the third part and a curtain call, but two scenes are still absent because they only exist in 16mm. George A. Romero has cited this as his all-time favorite movie, saying that it was the one that originally inspired him to get into filmmaking, while other directors such as Terry Gilliam and Mario Bava were clearly influenced by it.
The majority of the running time is taken up with three different, albeit heavily linked, stories, but there’s material before and after; in fact one could say, with some justification, that the set-up is too long, but it’s nearly all magical stuff. The sound of the orchestra tuning up has snippets of themes that we’ll hear properly later; the first shot proper is a slow zoom into a window before the camera pans along the silhouettes of town buildings and onto a stage before finding and zooming in a programme for “The Ballet of the Enchanted Dragonfly”, of which we then see a bit; a play within a play. Even if you’re not partial to ballet [I really like it in small doses] this is a dazzling sequence, Moira Shearer as Stella in speckled leotard and elfin ears dancing across a stage floor of giant lily pads amid a gauzed-out frame, cavorting with a lascivious Devil in red full-body costume, before disappearing up a three-tiered stairway that’s been painted so that it looks like she’s running up branches and creepers of a tree and disappearing into the sun. Stairs will soon be very frequent, some real, some not. Lindorf is watching this from behind a pillar, then intercepts Hoffmann’s love note. In the tavern, Hoffman tells of a clown – or rather a Fool – who falls for a beautiful lady and collapses dead when she rejects him, all done as dance with small clown figures on the wall also busting some moves. Then it’s a succession of astonishing images, elaborate set pieces and incredible sets with “Olympia”, set in Paris where the scientist Spalanzani has created an automaton in the form of a woman. His helper Coppélius wants revenge against Spalanzani for cheating out of his fees, and then there’s the young poet Hoffmann, who’s besotted by Olympia and is unaware of her true existence when wearing magic glasses – but eventually he’s going to take them off.
Things don’t turn out too well for Hoffmann, not to mention Olympia, but he decides to try again in “Guiletta”, as a more experienced person and a successful poet. We’re now in Venice, and – oh my god – a scene of such transcendent beauty [if dark beauty, but we like what we like] it literally brought tears to my eyes on my first viewing, the combination of the music and the images was so sublime. Buildings half glimpsed through water-like ripples dissolve into a shot of a stunning lady on what appears to be some kind of boat, singing the lovely “Barcarolle”, it being eventually revealed that she and a man beside her are on a cartoon-like gondola, gliding across a stage floor that’s been painted to only slightly look like it contains water, past weird, silhouetted statues which are observing the passing spectacle. The woman is the courtesan Guiletta, and the man with her the evil Captain Dapertutto. Despite her having another paramour, Hoffmann falls for her, not knowing that Dapertutto has promised her a diamond if she steals Hoffmann’s reflection from a mirror, while the other suitor is after his head. There are several different endings to this on stage: the film uses what seems to be the most satisfying. By the time of “Antonio”, Hoffmann is famed for his writing and seems to have at last found a woman who returns his affections, though he and Antonia were separated after her father Crespel decided to hide her from Hoffmann. Antonia inherited her mother’s talent for singing, but Crespel forbids her to sing because of her mysterious illness. Hoffmann of course encourages Antonia in her musical career, and therefore, endangers her without knowing it. Another lookalike villain, De. Mirakle, also wants her to sing, but knows exactly what it will do to her. This episode is a bit less fantastical but has more powerful emotion, and the return to the tavern doesn’t give us the ending that we expect, yet it’s entirely appropriate.
“Olympia” does a lot of wonderful stuff with puppets, with Olympia and Hoffmann dancing in between them as they are hanging on a giant clothesline, a puppet/human hybrid, and puppets themselves dancing or being replaced by people who still move like puppets, Yet little poignant touches abound even during this weirdness: I especially love the puppeteer trying to get his marionettes back at the end of the dance and tugging on the strings of a leftover, whisking it up into the air. The use of puppets relates to the general idea of manipulation; voyeurism is also a major theme, with characters constantly watching others in secret. “Antonia” is the least extravagant of the episodes, although it does feature the absolutely gorgeous wide angle image of a boat approaching the island with its Grecian-styled building on it, represented with a painted backdrop on a stage, meaning that, by the time somebody is swept up on a tour of the Solar System, it seems a perfectly natural occurrence. The inventiveness is incredible, yet special effects are kept simple; a pretty startling dismemberment [as in a lot of Powell and Pressburger, we’re not really far from the world of horror, which makes the extremely hostile critical reaction to Peeping Tom so odd and unwarranted as in some ways it was a natural progression] is probably done by using the old black velvet trick, frame flashes are used during a couple of transitions, and some of the compositing is almost seamless. The camera of Christopher Challis sometimes actually changes speed during shots. Did any other filmmaker do this at the time?”
Olympia” is clearly about early, more innocent, idealistic love, the doll symbolising pure beauty, while “Guiletta” concerns love of the sexual type; in addition to Ludmilla Tchérina’s extremely carnal performance which threatens to heat up the room one is watching it in, we even get shots of what’s clearly an orgy. “Antonia” concerns the frailty of human existence and also follows on somewhat from The Red Shoes, which was about the conflict between art and normal life; here, it’s art and death. Hoffmann may have found a woman who loves him, but still can’t see some essential truths. He’s undone by deceit every time, but the romantic fool is also his own worst enemy. His ego makes him blind to his faults and blind to things that are totally obvious, but no doubt he gets poetic inspiration from the pain that results so maybe it was all worth it. These women may be part of the trickery which thwarts him, but, as a story teller, he could be changing his stories, blaming his bad luck in love on powerful outside forces, as many infatuated types do. Robert Roundsville may not have a major screen presence but then his character is hardly a hero, and he’s one of the few cast members whose voice we actually hear. Moira Shearer perhaps gives the most striking performance as Olympia, which reaches a peak when performing the “Doll Song”; her character has to go out of control and frequently have to be stood up and wound up in a delicious funny yet also freaky set piece. What an extraordinary scene this is! Then there’s Nicklaus, Hoffmann’s friend in all three segments and the framing story, and a voice of reason to which Hoffman doesn’t listen to. Does he have romantic feelings for Hoffmann, who’s a typical silly bloke who pursues what he can’t have while ignoring what’s under his very nose, or am I just reading the fact that he’s played by a woman named Pamela Brown who’s constantly looking at him, wrongly?
Robert Helpmann [the Child Catcher no less!] also turns up in everywhere as a Satan-like presence; some moments in “Antonia” he’s mocked up like a traditional screen Dracula and even enters Antonia’s bedroom in a very vampiric fashion. He’s the only major performer who doesn’t dance, but he still moves about in reaction to the music, as do the other cast members. As well as replicating the opera performing style, their mannered acting takes The Tales Of Hoffmann, despite its nonstop music, even closer to a silent movie, especially one of the German Expresssionist cycle where set design also often went totally bonkers. Powell and Pressburger and their talented designer Hein Heckroth realised that for sets to really have a strong psychological effect, they need to be fairly simple. Therefore, while we do get the odd tableaux where it seems everything but the kitchen sink has been thrown in, for the most part design is sparse but strong in the right places so we pick things up, if sometimes only half consciously. Each story seems to have a different colour scheme; yellow based, red based, and finally blue based, all appropriate to the tone. This means that devices like rooms of curtains, sometimes within other curtains, are often all that we need. Quite often the visuals that get to us most are the ones only seen quickly, such as a bank with a hunched character sitting on a very high chair and desk against a wall that consists of black paint splattered on glass in the foreground, and the feet of Guiletta treading on the misshapen faces of the damned.
The music alternates between sung dialogue and actual tunes; some may find there to be too much of the former though there’s still plenty of the latter to enjoy, and the visuals are so entrancing it’s probably possible to get into the movie by turning the sound down and having a totally different aural accompaniment. A few of the songs are rather short to make much of an impression despite having catchy melodies, such as an early drinking song, while the odd translation from the French libretto into English sounds a little clunky. Of course the “Doll Song” and the “Barcarolle”, heard in a few variations in “Guiletta”, remain not just the most famous but the most memorable pieces, though that segment also give our perennial villain one grand song to do on his own where you can almost understand his evil, while a duel is oddly backed up by calm music. Perhaps because Offenbach barely finished it, “Antonia” lacks strong melodies despite characters singing their hearts out, though the climax is very powerful, Antonio being lured to do what she wants to do so much even though we know it will kill her, with a very powerful song where the singers are virtually at war with each other. Our poet loses out again, and will always lose out. He seems cursed to be lost in romantic delusion, never really attempting to understand the feelings of his objects of desire and never realising what’s really going on around him because of his rose-tinted glasses. This is something I rarely tend to say, but you could easily view the film from a feminist viewpoint; after all there’s been such articles written about Vertigo which is bizarrely similar in some respects. In any case, I’ve wanted to write about The Tales Of Hoffmann for some time, and despite writing a great many words I still don’t think I’ve done it justice, but – despite a few minor issues I may have with the music – it’s a thing of true beauty, a very special creation indeed.
The restoration is simply magnificent, making an already stunning-looking film even more stunning-looking.yet it’s not a sake of being garish just for the sake of it; there’s always balance. There’s also a considerable amount of detail that was just not visible before.
Introduction from Martin Scorsese [3 mins]
Studiocanal’s release has different special features to Criterion’s North American disc. We don’t get the audio commentary with Martin Scorsese, but he does pop up in this introduction, telling of he first saw it heavily cut and in black and white on TV yet still fell in love with it, and how its use of camera movement in synch with music influenced his own work.
Introduction from Thelma Schoonmaker [18 mins]
As well as editing all of Scorsese’s films since Raging Bull, Schoonmaker was married to Powell for the last six years of his life, so her insight is valuable. She says how he and Pressburger could basically do what they wanted until after The Red Shoes — though Powell never read David O. Selznick’s endless memos while making Down To Earth, and were still able to make The Tales Of Hoffmann with no inference. She also tells us that Scorsese’s wonderful Hugo was shot on the same backlot – which I didn’t know – and explains about the restoration and its added footage.
Brand new trailer
Includes booklet and postcards.
An incredibly stunning restoration of a totally unique jewel of a film. Take a chance and give it a go. Highly Recommended!
The Tales Of Hoffmann is part of Studiocanal’s Vintage Classics line, which offers an extraordinary selection of masterpieces of British cinema. Enter our competition to win the horror masterpieces Dead Of Night [reviewed here], The Masque Of The Red Death and Don’t Look Now here.