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Cinema Outre

The Tales of Hoffmann (1951),
A Film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Newly Restored, Cinefamily, 2015 —

 

Michael Powell, in 1939, after a decade spent writing, editing and learning everything cinematic, teamed with Hungarian writer Emeric Pressburger  in what would become surely the most inventive, original pairing of their time. For the next two decades, the partners co-wrote, co-produced and co-directed unique, visually striking films including The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death and Peeping Tom. However, the collaboration considered by some critics to be their masterpiece was The Tales of HoffmannThis dreamlike, Technicolor film of an operetta by Jacques Offenbach whose arias were lip-synched, for the most part, by notable ballet dancers, was long available on DVD but only rarely shown on a big screen, usually in botched condition. Now there exists a newly restored version that features eight minutes of never before seen footage since the 1951 release.

The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), Powell and Pressburger’s most extravagant creation, will be released by Rialto Pictures on March 13th for an exclusive, one-week engagement in Los Angeles (at Cinefamily) and New York (at Film Forum). Limited screenings are scheduled for other major cities. “Tales” has benefited from a stunning, new 4K restoration by The Film Foundation—under the aegis of Powell’s fervent champion, Martin Scorsese—with assistance from the British Film Institute and Studiocanal. Supervising the sensitive restoration was the brilliant, Oscar-winning film editor Thelma Schoonmaker who is the widow of Michael Powell. Thanks to Rialto, which has unearthed and released several neglected cinema gems, The Tales of Hoffmann will soon be available in the longest, brightest and most complete version ever screened in the United States. Every frame sparkles in vivid Technicolor, from exotic skin tones and bejeweled costumes to special effects created decades before the advent of computer graphics.

After the critical and financial success of The Red Shoes (1948), Powell and Pressburger began to search for their next project. Brian Easdale’s original score for the ballet-themed story had been recorded by Sir Thomas Beecham and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It was that eminent conductor who pitched the idea of The Tales of Hoffmann to the film-makers, devising a way to cut 40 repetitious minutes out of the 3-hour score. Powell and Pressburger, whose interests were piqued, began to envision the dancers in The Red Shoes, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Ludmilla Tcherina and Leonide Massine, as the stars of Offenbach’s frothy, French “opera buffe”. The singers, tenor Robert Rounseville, who portrays Hoffmann, Margherita Grandi, Ann Ayers and others, were engaged and then the complete revised score was pre-recorded. This would allow Powell total freedom with the Technicolor camera when he shot what was essentially a silent picture. Choreography by Fredrick Ashton—who dances character parts in “Tales”—production design, costumes and complex visual schemes had to be worked out but at least the soundtrack was “in the can”. The music and songs were, and are, familiar to most music lovers, especially the lovely, swaying Barcarolle, “Belle Nuit” [Oh, Night of Love] in the Venice-themed Act II. Offenbach died only four months prior to the operetta’s Paris premiere in 1881. He believed it to be his finest work and today it’s considered his masterpiece.

 

Offenbach was not the only composer to be inspired by the short stories of the real life E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1882), a German composer, painter and writer of weird, psychological tales. His supernatural and often macabre themes can be found in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, Delibes’ Coppelia, Hindemith’s Cardillac and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. The premise of The Tales of Hoffmann sounds relatively simple: a despondent young poet, drinking with friends in a tavern, describes his adventures and failed love affairs with three beautiful women. But when the three acts unfold, as in many an opera, a lot of unusual things occur: several people are disguised in masks; a magician takes on many forms; the part of Hoffmann’s male friend, Nicklaus, is usually sung by a woman; a lovely mechanical doll is brought to life and Hoffmann falls in love with it, but later the doll is torn limb from limb; a character’s reflection in a mirror is stolen, as is someone else’s shadow; a mother and daughter have consumption and are later killed. Seemingly a dark affair and very much so in the hands of Powell.

It was the fantastic and whimsical details in the Hoffmann/Offenbach scenarios that gave Michael Powell the license to experiment with his camera. He shot film at different speeds and effectively used slow motion, reverse action and double exposure. People sometimes disappear into mirrors; there are ghosts and half-human puppets. The “magic spectacles” worn by one of the characters allowed Powell to do whatever he fancied, no matter how wildly imaginative or odd. To describe what he attempted with the startling ballet sequence in The Red Shoes and what he accomplished throughout The Tales of Hoffmann, Powell used the phrase “composed film”—a combination of music, dance, art and design into a motion picture’s seamless flow. And the man most responsible for bringing that “composed film” vision to life, the key figure in the world of Powell/Pressburger movies, was the brilliant designer and artist Hein Heckroth. In “Tales”, his canvas included the floor, the walls, the color-coding, the costumes, the make-up and just about everything else. It was Heckroth’s idea to have each of the three acts keyed to a single color. The set for Olympia, the beautiful doll, is yellow so everything on the screen will correspond with a yellow palette. The overall look for Giulietta, the courtesan who is friendly with the devil, is red, with splashes of black and deep green. Antonia’s story takes place in Greece, so the blue of the national flag (and the sea that surrounds the islands) is dominant, along with steel and stone colors that suggest death. Heckroth’s flamboyant imagination and sensual design created the fantasy world that Powell and Pressburger needed to tell their stories.   He was nominated for two Academy Awards for The Tales of Hoffmann, for Costume Design and for Color Art Direction. (My guess is that he would have won if “An American In Paris” wasn’t released in the same year.)

 

The dance sequences in this film—and the dancers—are breathtaking. Robert Helpmann was in a dozen movies during his career as an actor and it seems as if he’s playing a dozen characters in The Tales of Hoffmann. His eyes and hawk face and skill at movement are memorable. Ludmilla Tcherina played a sweet but rather small part in The Red Shoes; here, she plays a really sexy, avaricious, exotic vamp. The camera glides around her tanned, strong body, just watching her breathe, as she glides around the set and onto a gondolla, stepping on the empty husks of the men she’s possessed. Moira Shearer is at the peak of her dancing skills as Olympia, the toy doll. She is witty and in on the gag, too, as she is bent this way and that, asleep on her floating bed and eventually pulled apart at her seams. Powell/Pressburger were smart to create an amazing scene in the Prologue—”The Ballet of the Enchanted Dragonfly”—simply to capture more of Moira on film. Her smooth, fit form encased in a unitard, she flits from flower to flower in Heckroth’s clever design. But with choreography by Ashton, Shearer moves at warp speed and it’s truly difficult to follow her feet.

When Cecil B. DeMille saw the movie, he wrote a personal letter to Powell and Pressburger: “For the first time in my life, I was treated to Grand Opera where the beauty, power and scope of the music was equally matched by the visual presentation“. Bosley Crowther, in his original review in The New York Times, was a bit more reserved. “‘The Red Shoes’ had warmth and vitality”, he wrote; “‘Tales of Hoffmann’ is splendid and cool”. The film’s prologue and first two acts are overflowing with rich colors, stylized sets, lavish costumes, surreal props, visual jokes and exquisite ballet sequences, all viewed through decorated scrims and gauzy screens. This is over-the-top artifice of the highest order. The third act and epilogue, however, are cloaked in icy blue and moody grey tones—fitting backgrounds for the haunting themes of consumption and death we witness. The lengthy scene features abundant, beautiful singing, but no dancing. The exuberance of the film seemed to evaporate and the studio heads in London asked Powell and Pressburger to eliminate the act entirely. Some cuts were made to shorten the picture, which accounts for different lengths of various versions since 1951, but the bulk of the sequence remains.

A memorable film by any standard and in its newly restored condition a must see while currently available on the big screen.

Comments

  1. Richard Davis says:

    I will await its showing in Washington, DC, I hope at the AFI Silver Theatre.

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