The Tales of Hoffmann

Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Screenplay: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (based on the opera by Jacques Offenbach)
Stars: Moira Shearer (Stella, Olympia), Ludmilla Tchérina (Giulietta), Anne Ayars (Antonia), Pamela Brown (Nicklaus), Léonide Massine (Spalanzani, Schlemil, and Franz), Robert Helpmann (Lindorf, Coppelius, Dapertutto, and Dr Miracle), Frederick Ashton (Kleinsach and Cochenille), Mogens Wieth (Crespel), Robert Rounseville (Hoffmann), Lionel Harris (Pitichinaccio), Philip Leaver (Andreas), Meinhart Maur (Luther)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1951
Country: U.K.
The Tales of Hoffmann Criterion Collection DVD
The Tales of HoffmannWith The Tales of Hoffmann, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger set out to do something that had never been done before: turn an opera into a film. Mind you, this is a far different endeavor than simply recording an opera on film, something that had been done since the beginning of cinema (“canned theater” of all kinds was an early staple of the movies). Rather, they took an opera and transformed it visually, using every trick imaginable -- cinematic, theatrical, and even right-before-your-eyes sleight-of-hand trickery -- to reimagine it as cinematic spectacle. The result is a testament to both their creativity and the inherent limitations of trying to transform one medium into another.

The Tales of Hoffmann is a cinematic rendition of an unfinished 1880 opera-ballet by Jacques Offenbach that was based on the works of 19th-century German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. Offenbach used creative license to insert Hoffmann into the stories, making him the main character that binds the various tales together. He also used elements of the supernatural, which makes this work a rarity in serious opera.

The three “tales” of Hoffman each explores his “folly of love,” depicting him at a different stage of life in which he falls for and is ultimately heartbroken by a different woman. The first is a mechanical doll named Olympia (Moira Shearer, star of Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 film The Red Shoes) that is literally destroyed before Hoffmann’s eyes; the second is Giulietta (Ludmilla Tchérina), a bewitching courtesan dressed in black (never a good sign) who seduces and destroys Hoffmann; and finally there’s Antonia (Anne Ayars), the dying daughter of a famous composer.

Each story contains in it a kernel of truth about the sometimes destructive nature of love, whether it be passion for the unattainable or the weakness of a man seduced, yet they remain slightly at arm’s length, ever quite attaining intimate power and passion. Part of this is the nature of opera itself, especially as it is worked out on the screen -- relentlessly formal, highly choreographed, and self-consciously melodramatic, it presents itself so firmly as “art” that it takes a strong will to get past the gaudy surface and into the emotion. Opera is an acquired taste, thus the many pretensions of the form itself tend to get in the way of those viewers who have not cultivated it (including myself).

On a purely aesthetic level, though, The Tales of Hoffmann is a monumental achievement. Powell and Pressburger, masters of color and composition, turn each gliding frame into a visual feast, gorging on lusciously saturated Technicolor, exquisite production design, and outlandish costumes and make-up. Some of the film’s imagery is immediately unforgettable, especially the more macabre moments, such as Giulietta walking daintily across what appears to be a sea of charred bodies or the moment when Olympia’s mechanical body is torn limb from limb.

There is no sense of realism in the film, not even of a dream-state variety; no, The Tales of Hoffmann is a theatrical production through and through, making no attempts to hide its curtains and formal staginess and even the theatrical special effects, such as the black velvet used to mask the parts of Olympia’s body that have been torn away. Yet, despite the canned theatricality, Powell and Pressburger manage to make it exquisitely cinematic, using camera movement and angles and such filmic techniques as double exposure and fast and reverse motion to achieve imagery that would be impossible on-stage.

Yet, in the end, The Tales of Hoffmann never quite satisfies because it doesn’t transcend its stagebound origins. There is something noble and moving about Powell and Pressburger’s ambitions to create a hybrid art between stage and screen, one that is not fully one nor the other, yet it is the film’s interstitial nature that ultimately disappoints.

It doesn’t help either that Robert Rounseville’s Hoffmann makes for such a bland and uninvolving central character. Although Helpmann was a star of the New York City Opera, he has little in the way of screen presence, which combined with Hoffmann’s essentially passive nature makes him deadly dull. Part of this is related to the story’s emphasis on the nature of fate, but it saps the film of a central core of energy, which keeps its striking images from adding up to anything more grandiose than themselves.

The Tales of Hoffmann Criterion Collection Special Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Audio commentary by director Martin Scorsese and film music historian Bruce Eder
  • New video interview with director George A. Romero
  • The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1956), a short musical film directed by Michael Powell
  • Gallery of production sketches and paintings
  • Gallery of archival production and publicity photographs
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Essay by film historian Ian Christie
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateNovember 22, 2005

    Criterion’s new high-definition transfer was made from the British Film Institute’s 35mm restoration internegative, roughly the same source as their earlier laser disc edition (which was taken from a composite print made from the internegative). In addition to the generational improvement of the transfer, the DVD image has also been further restored digitally, removing most traces of dirt and scratches. The result is a lovely, if not entirely perfect, image that nicely recreates the slightly muted colors of the Technicolor palette. Some of the image is a little soft, and there are a few times when it seems like the three Technicolor strips didn’t quite line up, which is a frequent occurrence with older films due to inevitable shrinkage. Overall, though, the image looks about as good as we could expect, and it does justice to Powell and Pressburger’s magnificent imagery.

    Considering the fact that the entire film is wall-to-wall music, the soundtrack is of vital importance, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Even in monaural, the soundtrack shines quite brightly. It was transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm restoration optical tracks and then further improved via digital restoration, resulting in a clean, hiss-free soundscape.

    For anyone with reservations about the importance and artistic merits of The Tales of Hoffmann, Criterion provides strong testimony from a couple of unexpected sources. The first comes via an audio commentary recorded in 1992 for the laser disc edition by filmmaker Martin Scorsese, one of the film’s most intense admirers, and film historian Bruce Eder. Eder is more measured and scholarly in his commentary, while Scorsese waxes poetic about his fascination with the film and its effect on his work (including Taxi Driver and GoodFellas). Even when Scorsese lapses into basically narrating what’s happening on screen, he does it with such enthusiasm that it’s worth listening to.

    The most unexpected bit of testimony, though, comes from filmmaker George A. Romero, best known for his zombie films starting with 1968’s classic Night of the Living Dead. In a newly recorded 15-minute video introduction, Romero discusses the film’s importance and it’s lasting influence on his work, as well (who would have thought he got an effects idea for Creepshow from the “Olympia” segment of The Tales of Hoffmann?).

    Other supplements on the disc include several extensive stills galleries of production designer Hein Heckroth’s sketches and paintings (which are sumptuous art in their own right) and archival production and publicity photographs. A particularly neat new inclusion is the 1956 short musical film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice directed by Michael Powell, which demonstrates his continuing desire to marry music and film.

    Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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