Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Filmed opera has always been popular; I'm given to understand that there were silent adaptations of operatic stories in which people sang but were not heard. The intensely creative Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had reached a peak of popularity with their 1947 The Red Shoes, a Technicolor dazzler that brought the high-toned beauty of ballet to audiences that might never have bothered to see a real ballet performance. Jack Cardiff's striking colors paralleled the stylized story of ballerina Moira Shearer's ambition to dance with the lethal red shoes of a fairy tale, shoes that forced their wearer to dance until death. It's said that ballet schools for young girls took a leap in popularity that year.
The movies of Powell and Pressburger were always about experimentation, and the music director of The Red Shoes Thomas Beecham sold them on the idea of doing an entire opera-ballet in a style similar to their extended dance number. The Tales of Hoffmann were three separate stories all involving similar doomed romances. The completed film has been delighting fans of both opera and Powell and Pressburger ever since.
Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) sends a love note backstage to his dancer sweetheart Stella, but it's intercepted by the devious and possesive Linsdorf (Robert Helpmann). While waiting in a bar with his best friend Nicklaus (Pamela Brown, playing a man) for the performance of The Dragonfly Ballet to finish, Hoffmann tells three tales of frustrated love. In The Tale of Olympia Hoffmann falls in love with a beautiful dancer (Shearer again), not knowing that she's an automaton created by the magician Coppelius (Helpmann again). In The Tale of Giulietta Hoffmann is bewitched by the vain Giulietta (Ludmilla Tchérina) and almost loses his soul to a magic mirror. And in The Tale of Antonia Hoffman travels to a Greek island and falls in love with Antonia (Ann Ayars), who will die if she sings again.
The Tales of Hoffmann is going to confound a great many fans looking for Powell & Pressburger's wild imagination to be expressed as it is in their other films. It's a rarified drama and less accessible than most of their movies; even with subtitles people with an aversion to opera or unable to concentrate on the form may have trouble engaging. So much of opera on film is just singers standing in scenery, performing vocal gymnastics that requires refined tastes to appreciate. The Tales of Hoffmann is essentially no different. What Powell & Pressburger do is to approach the material with their 'musical camera' approach, in which no effect is wrong if it contributes to the desired emotional impression of the scene.
There have been operas done on giant sets and on real locations, but The Tales of Hoffmann opts for an entirely cinematic landscape that sometimes involves elaborate sets and at other times illusions that could only be done in the camera. Powell & Pressburger always employed a clever 'arts and crafts' technique that relied more on brilliant concepts than technical prowess alone. The Tales of Hoffmann continues the musical experiment from The Red Shoes that they initially tried out for the dramatic conclusion of Black Narcissus.
The end of Black Narcissus was practically operatic in itself. One deranged woman approaches another on a towering precipice with murderous intentions. Powell worked backwards from the normal plan by first recording the score and then engineering his visuals and action to follow its moods. Actors worked to playback and the entire sequence was clocked to the split second. It worked so well that they did the same thing with the ballet scene in their next film. The Red Shoes broke down the barrier of literalism. The only real progenitor of this in studio filmmaking was Busby Berkeley, but his work was at a different scale and generally sought to expand the glamour and spectacle of a stage show into multiple dimensions. Powell and Pressburger had the cinematic skill to do abstract camera magic that could only take place on a screen, and worked at levels of subtlety unseen in Berkeley's universe of smiling chorines multiplied to infinity. Sometimes they'd achieve the correct imagistic note by simply having Jack Cardiff dash a superimposed brushstroke of color across the screen.
What's being described here and what Powell & Pressburger were after conceptually was the same basic idea that we now associate with Music Videos. Starting with a pre-recorded and set audio track, the screen is used not just to record a performance but to express a particular aspect of the music. Some MTV-style music videos tell stories and others just strike moods. Powell & Pressburger had three grand tales to tell from E.T.A. Hoffman's fantastic storybook.
All of The Tales of Hoffmann is done to playback, which means that the actors and dancers sing with voices not their own and lip-sync the words. The freedom from recording sound on the set brought the filmmakers back to silent movie days when actors could be talked through scenes. In this case it helped with filming because the already unwieldy Technicolor camera did not need its enormous and awkward sound blimp.
The film is an extended visual effect that extends (some say too far) the visual possibilities of opera. Miniatures and superimposed artwork scenery are used quite a bit, while sleight-of-hand jump-cuts, split screens and other effects are done in the camera. For the best-known piece of Offenbach music, the Barcarole, a cartoonish gondola courses left to right across the screen. Everything is timed to the music, and the scenery and the camera take part in the dancing as much as the ballerinas. The evil characters played by Robert Helpmann (probably best known as the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) aren't always dancing, but he moves so closely with the music that he seems to be part of it.
The Tales of Hoffmann, for the average viewer, is still going to be an opera movie. Despite all the creative trimmings the overall impression is that the film remains a picture in which people often stand and sing (thanks be to subtitles to help us understand the lyrics). The stories are told only through dance, song and special effects, and we also must connect with the characters by he same routes. Viewers unused to relating to emotions through those arts may not follow what's happening at all.
Dancers Moira Shearer, Helpmann, Léonide Massine and Ludmilla Tchérina are riveting actors but our hero Hoffmann doesn't hold our attention or sympathy; he's passive in all four stories while the drama boils around him. The first and second stories are the strongest. Giulietta is sort of a Succubus-vampire leading Hoffmann to his doom, and Olympia turns out to be a mechanical puppet reminiscent of the deadly multi-armed statue in Powell's The Thief of Bagdad. It's quite disturbing when she's disassembled like the flying horse from the same film, or Ian Holm's malfunctioning robot in Alien. 1
The Tales of Hoffmann is a superb Opera film that doesn't quite reach back down to the level of general audiences. Fans of The Red Shoes have to admit that it connects through conventional dramatic means, and that the Red Shoes ballet is compelling because we feel for the dancer as a normal characterization first. Hoffmann remains at a stylized remove. I remember looking into a 1960s encyclopedia that tried to present the subject of Motion Pictures on a lofty plane. The example they used was The Tales of Hoffmann, to draw a distinction between high art and whatever vulgar thing Hollywood was doing. I'm sure Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger never had any such intentions.
Criterion's DVD of The Tales of Hoffmann will finally allow fans of the film to retire their pricey laserdiscs from the early 1990s. The picture is improved but there are still a number of shots with out-of-register Technicolor hues. It doesn't distract as much as add fat red lines here and there and sometimes work against discerning detail. Otherwise the images are gloriously sharp. Martin Scorsese in his commentary (re-purposed from the earlier laserdisc?) keeps mentioning details he says we can't see, when we can ... indicating that the Criterion DVD quality approaches an original Technicolor experience.
Bruce Eder joins Scorsese on the commentary, which strives to communicate the appeal of the film, often through Scorsese's personal experience. We certainly appreciate their input but ultimately have to judge the film's effect for ourselves ... if the use of the color Yellow in the Giulietta sequence doesn't strike us as aesthetically brilliant, does that mean that our perceptions are inadequate? Sometimes these commentaries make us feel so.
As if combatting that idea, disc producer Karen Stetler brings out horror filmmaker George Romero to articulate his personal romance with the film, which gets down to errata as intimate as his suspicion that whenever he wasn't renting the one 16mm print in Manhattan of The Tales of Hoffmann in the 1960s, Martin Scorsese was. The effect is of a new kind of film-culture snobbery -- one might be tempted to claim one is moved by a picture like this one, to avoid being labeled a cinema dullard. Criterion's commitment to challenging and difficult films -- not just pictures like Pickpocket, but truly tough nuts like the films of Stan Brakhage -- stands, but sometimes one just has to admit that every flavor of art isn't for everyone.
Interesting but in no way as successful as the earlier pictures is a short subject dance film by Powell from 1956 called The Sorcerer's Apprentice. It's presented in a CinemaScope format. There is also a hefty gallery of artwork and stills, an original trailer and a good essay from Ian Christie that doesn't try to tell us we need to love the film. Sometimes a lofty artistic effort is supposed to be remain remote.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Tales of Hoffman rates:
Supplements: Commentary with Martin Scorsese and Bruce Eder, Video interview with George Romero, Powell's 1956 short film The Sorcerer's Apprentice, galleries of Hein Heckroth's designs & stills, trailer, Essay by Ian Christie.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 21, 2005
1. In one of those academic cul-de-sacs that accompany compartmentalizing movies into genres, Phil Hardy's Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Films lists The Tales of Hoffmann as Sci Fi because of the 'robotic' dancer Olympia. Now, honestly ....
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson