NYFF: The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

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For director Michael Powell, The Red Shoes was “mostly a sketch for The Tales of Hoffmann“. So far the sketch has eclipsed the full painting, with The Red Shoes a repertory film staple that plays regularly around the country (you can catch it in my cinema-starved hometown of Buffalo on November 17th!), while The Tales of Hoffmann has endured decades of neglect and chopped up film prints. Its relative obscurity should begin to lift, now that a new 4K scan of the original camera negative has been performed by the BFI, with support from The Film Foundation and StudioCanal.  The stateside premiere of the restoration occurred at the New York Film Festival, introduced by superfan Martin Scorsese and his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who was married to Powell until his passing in 1990).

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The Tales of Hoffmann is a deliriously beautiful film about male fantasies of female perfection. Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) invents women to match the romantic ideal he has of himself, all of whom emerge from a mediated perceptual and meta-cinematic schema. Olympia (Moira Shearer) is a mechanical doll who looks human when Hoffmann views her through ornate (3D?) glasses. Giulietta (Ludmilla Tcherina) is a devil’s handmaiden who steals Hoffmann’s soul by having him stare into a mirror.  Antonia (Ann Ayars) is a thwarted opera singer whose mother’s statue comes to life.  Absorbed in his own vanity, Hoffmann is not granted unmediated sight, and so ends up drunk and alone.

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Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were after something they called a “composed film”, a gesamtkunstwerk of music, dance and film that grants each their individual freedom but operates in concert, working without dialogue, but through purely expressive gesture. Their test of this concept was the climactic dance in The Red Shoes, and The Tales of Hoffmann was to be its fruition. The choice of subject matter was brought to them by conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. According to Powell the original idea was to record with him “a wonderful performance of the singers of the opera, and then make a film of it with dancers . Simple as that.” They adapted the Jacques Offenbach opera into a new English translation (by Dennis Arundell), and hired both voices and bodies for each character. Powell wanted “a performance, not a recording”, so he strayed from operatic singers and chose singer-actors for the vocals to which the actors would lip-sync. Only Rounseville’s Hoffmann and Ann Ayars’ Antonia sung their own parts. They recorded the score separately, and then shot the film according to the music’s rhythms, giving the director of photography and actors more freedom than they had since the silent era. It is not just the camera movement that is calibrated to the music though, but equally the actor’s movement inside the frame (dance choreographed by Frederick Ashton), as well as the rhythmic editing of Reginald Mills.

Instead of trying to mitigate the artificiality,  of the enterprise, they emphasize it, with painted backdrops and fantastical set designs by Hein Heckroth. This overt “staginess” attracted significant criticism. Siegfried Kracauer called it “nothing but photographed theater”, and that seemed to be the prevailing viewpoint until the film became nigh impossible to see. Distribution was nonexistent through the 60s, and when prints did get out, they were in B&W and missing the third act. That’s how Scorsese first saw it on the “Million Dollar Movie” on local NYC television, beginning a lifelong obsession. He named Robert Helpmann’s face as an influence on Taxi Driver. Schoonmaker related how Scorsese would screen the film endlessly during the editing process of Raging Bull, and would get enraged when MoMA would ask for the print back, because another director was requesting it. It turned out George Romero was another Hoffmann fanatic, and was analyzing it in the run-up to his film about traveling renaissance fair/ motorcycle gang , Knightriders (1981).

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Act 1, “Olympia”, takes place in a mechanical doll studio that Hein Heckroth gave a Fauvist explosion of color. Hoffmann is agog at the ingenuity of it all, lost in his own perceptual whirlwind. The inventor Coppelius (Helpmann) twirls him through demonstrations of his amazingly lifelike puppets, which come to life underwhen Hoffmann dons garish glasses, some with pearls stringing down. They are a cinematic talisman, allowing the inanimate objects to come to life under his gaze. The camera rises up into the rafters to display the puppet master pulling the strings – but what are wooden dolls up there turn into prancing humans on stage – and one in particular catches Hoffmann’s eye. To him she is too real to be fake, or simply too beautiful not to reflect his idea of reality. In any case, it’s Olympia (Moira Shearer) reclining on a hammock, her aquiline features and aerodynamic limbs lying still in anticipation. It is clear this is a body that can do damage. And she does, swirling like a top but needing to be constantly wound up by her handlers.  Shearer is a marvel, not just as a dancer but a comedian, able to execute lithe ballet maneuvers at one end of the stage, and then collapse like an accordion at the other. Hoffmann is helpless at her cold, inanimate beauty, a dumbfounded idiot who thought he found the perfect woman. He is humiliated at the revelation of her not-aliveness, and she is eventually torn limb-from-limb in a scene of sadistic doll violence.

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Act 2, “Giulietta”, gets supernatural, and begins to bring out the German Expressionist strains in Heckroth’s designs and Robert Helpmann’s Nosferatu garb. It takes place in Venice, and Giulietta is a leggy siren luring Hoffmann towards her. In a disorienting sequence, Powell and Pressburger cut back and forth between Giulietta’s disembodied head superimposed on the canal singing a ghostly tune, and Giulietta’s physical body in a gondola rowing for home. Here again is the spirit/body split, the woman multiplied into parts that Hoffmann can then separate and filter through his own ego. In this fable of betrayal she steals his soul for a neck full of diamonds. His soul is taken when he looks into a mirror, and his image disappears. His sight is blinkered and uncertain, his love a delusion. It’s only when he skewers a man with a saber and cracks the mirror in two, that his soul is restored to him. It did not, however, give him intelligence.

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Act 3, “Antonia” is Hoffmann’s best shot at capturing reality. There are no disruptions of his sight, only his empathy. Antonia is in ill health, and has been advised not to sing for fear of her weak constitution. Her father isolates her in the bedroom, alone with a statue of her late grande dame mother, once a famed opera singer. Hoffmann arrives to declare his love and burst into song, and the satanic Dr. Miracle (Helpmann, again, with his menacing widow’s peak) has similar designs to nefarious ends – he wants her to sing until she dies, so she can join her mother. Miracle is a weird amalgam of Dr. Caligari madman and Dracula force of nature, able to summon Antonia’s body to instantaneously appear at his examining couch when she is off in another room – yet more imagery of the segmented female body. She is not in control of herself  - and her mind starts cracking. Her hallucinations escalate until she is sharing a duet with her dead mother in a medieval wood, sharing a mournful duet before suffering the same fate – a brutally beautiful escape.

The restored Tales of Hoffmann will screen at NYC’s Film Forum in early 2015 and presumably tour the country after that. It’s a bewitching, profoundly strange work, both radically free and conservatively stagebound. Kracauer wrote that it is both “a spectacle that transcends the possibilities of the stage”, but “built from miraculous studio effects, it shuts out any miracle the camera may reveal. The ripple of a single leaf suffices to denounce its treacherous glamour.” It’s a gorgeously suffocating work, and there’s truly nothing else like it.

4 Responses NYFF: The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)
Posted By robbushblog : October 7, 2014 2:52 pm

I starting watching this once, but could not finish it. It could not hold my interest. I’ve been to a few operas, but this just couldn’t keep me engaged. I much prefer THE RED SHOES, but I much prefer BLACK NARCISSUS to that. I guess I’m not completely a fine arts guy.

Posted By AL : October 7, 2014 9:59 pm

RES–thank you. This is very exciting. I hope this new restoration will play my area. The Criterion DVD is fairly spectacular; I can’t wait to see this new 35mm print on an actual movie screen in an actual movie theatre! I guess it’s too early to ask, but do you know when they’ll transfer it to DVD?

Posted By swac44 : October 8, 2014 10:10 am

I remember watching this for the first time, and at some point realizing that Robert Helpmann was also the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, who haunted my childhood nightmares for many years, and that just made the whole experience that much creepier, especially when we get to Dr. Miracle (who definitely has a bit of Nosferatu in him).

I mean that in a good way, of course.

Posted By ziggy 6708 : October 11, 2014 6:23 am

great post on a beautiful film that aired some time ago on TCM. Wish I had read this before viewing, as it fascinated but confused me also. Love all of P&P’s films.

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