Little-known fact: Judge Joe Armenio is "the other guy" in The Three Tenors.
Made in England.
The end title of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) bears an emphatic "Made in England" stamp, an ironic commentary by Powell, who often was critical of the provincialism and (pardon the pun) insularity of British cinema. The stamp is ironic because Hoffmann is so ostentatiously international, adapting an opera by one Continental type (Jacques Offenbach) about another Continental type (E.T.A. Hoffmann), using a cast of singers and dancers from across Europe, the States, and Australia. The film itself is as expansive and bold as its casting, a mix of music, ballet, and cinematic spectacle that George A. Romero calls "the first music video," and that Powell and Pressburger called "a composed film," one which held all its formal elements in balance, each as important to the final result as the rest.
Facts of the Case
Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) was a popular composer of comic operettas, and The Tales of Hoffmann, which he left unfinished at his death, is usually considered his only full-scale opera. The story adopts three different tales of lost love by the fantasy writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, inserting Hoffmann himself as the main character to tie the stories together. The framing device is a ballet performance by a dancer named Stella with whom Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) is enamored (Moira Shearer, The Red Shoes). While waiting for their rendezvous after the performance, Hoffmann goes to a tavern and regales his friends with stories of his lost loves: Olympia, who turned out to be a doll (Shearer again); Giulietta, a seductive Venetian courtesan (Ludmilla Tcherina), and Antonia, a consumptive singer (Ann Ayars). All of his amours are doomed by a shape-shifting villain (Robert Helpmann, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang).
Romero calls this "the first music video" partly because the soundtrack was recorded by Sir Thomas Beecham, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and a cast of singers before the film was shot. Powell and Pressburger then made the film to playback, using a cast which consists mostly of dancers (Rounseville and Ayars are the only actors who sang their own parts). The performance is played out in vivid Technicolor, against Hein Heckroth's striking sets, which make no attempt to reproduce reality, reveling in their theatricality and artificiality, influenced by surrealism, cubism, and German Expressionism. They often consist only of paintings or backdrops (like the mysterious image of the Venetian gondola on the DVD cover) and are displayed according to a bold color scheme: rich yellow for the Olympia sequence, seductive red for Giulietta, somber blue for Antonia.
Powell and Pressburger's Hoffmann has often been patronized as a "filmed opera," not a fully cinematic work, but that ignores the fact that Powell is positively drunk on cinematic technique here, taking full visual advantage of the eye-filling sets and color, moving the camera, using multiple exposures, fast and reverse motion, jump and flash cuts. Most of the "special effects" are simple in execution but striking in effect, as when Olympia the doll is dismantled, leaving a spectacle which a 21st-century cinephile can't help but classify as (David) Lynchian: the disembodied head glancing sweetly up, one leg continuing fervently to dance. It's no surprise that Martin Scorsese is a big fan of this film, given his taste for the expansive and expressive (some would say excessive) use of all the possibilities of film.
One could say, in fact, that among Powell and Pressburger's films, Hoffmann is to The Red Shoes (1948) what Scorsese's Casino is to Goodfellas: both Hoffmann and Casino are lavish, mannerist exaggerations of the previous film's thematic, stylistic, and tonal preoccupations. In Powell and Pressburger's case, the main ideas are the mysteriously seductive and dangerous lure of art and the tone is one of romantic pessimism. Offenbach's works were known for their lightheartedness, but Hoffmann is marked by a deep fatalism; Hoffmann is cursed by fate or the devil or whoever for no particular reason (represented by Helpmann's sneering, conniving villain: Romero likens him to Dracula). In particular, the final story, in which Ayars plays a gifted singer who will die if she exercises her gift, is a rather explicit restatement of some of the ideas contained in The Red Shoes.
It should go without saying by now that a viewer who's looking for the traditional literary virtues, or who has trouble suspending disbelief or tolerating highly stylized performances, should probably look elsewhere. The acting is variable: Helpmann is wonderfully menacing, Shearer precise and elegant, Tcherina mysterious and alluring. Rounseville's Hoffmann is wooden, although as Scorsese points out, the performance is appropriate to the irritatingly clueless and passive nature of his character, who's always convinced that he's about to find love, never listens to his reasonable friend Nicklaus (played by a woman, Pamela Brown), and is always undone in the end.
This Criterion version restores nine minutes which were cut from the film by producer Alexander Korda, who felt that the beginning of the Antonia sequence was boring and overly expository and hacked it off. The story of Antonia does have a more staid and classical tone than the Giuletta episode that precedes it (although it builds to a fevered climax), and it is anchored by Rounseville and Ayars and hence features less dance than the previous segments. But I think it was my favorite of the episodes, and the missing nine minutes are crucial for pacing purposes; the story, on the relationship of love and art and death, is clearly closest to Powell's heart, and his staging of its final sequence combines music and drama in the seamless, rhythmic, "composed" manner to which he always aspired.
Criterion's technical presentation is typically strong; the sound is the original mono, and is clear and strong for the main program (although on The Sorcerer's Apprentice, discussed below, things get a little hissy). Color reproduction is excellent and print damage is mild. They've also put together a decent collection of extras. The audio commentary was recorded by Scorsese and historian Bruce Eder for the laserdisc edition in 1992; Eder is at home in both the film and music worlds and provides interestingly detailed biographies of the actors and dancers. Many of these folks lived on the periphery of the film industry and hence will be unfamiliar to cinephiles, so the background information is much appreciated. Scorsese handles the scene-specific commentary; as always, he's a generous and insightful critic, and it's a pleasure to hear him talk about movies. As mentioned earlier, he loves the expressionist exuberance of the film, but he also points out the moments in which Powell is admirably restrained, using master shots instead of close-ups at key moments, then gliding the camera with a rhythm that follows the music. Scorsese also discusses his personal memories of the film, which he first saw on TV in the late 1950s, edited and, of course, in black and white.
Romero, like Scorsese, first encountered the film as a kid in 1950s New York, and his interview is similarly nostalgic and affectionate, discussing the ways in which Hoffmann opened his eyes to the possibilities of film technique. He remembers repeatedly renting a 16mm print of the film; occasionally he was unable to acquire the print because some kid named Scorsese had gotten to it before him!
The DVD also includes a generous gallery of production photos, stills from the film, publicity materials, and sketches by production designer Heckroth, whose gorgeously abstract and slightly menacing images were the models for his sets. Finally, there's a trailer and a 13-minute version of Goethe's story "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" which Powell made in 1956 and which reunited him with Heckroth, although the film seems more a curiosity than a successful adaptation. The film is rare and not in especially good shape, although I'm sure Criterion did their best to restore it; the story is told through ballet and voice-over narration, with the apprentice played by Sonia Arova. The sets look kind of murky and dismal and Powell uses master shots almost exclusively.
In his booklet essay, Ian Christie mentions critic Thomas Elsaesser, who "bracketed the film's romantic pessimism with that of Orson Welles and the Jean-Luc Godard of Contempt." Hoffmann is a fascinating picture, but I wouldn't go so far as to place it in the class of The Magnificent Ambersons or Le Mepris; Powell and Pressburger's kitchen-sink approach and their faithfulness to Offenbach's material prevent them from achieving the kind of precise, coherent artistic vision that Welles or Godard had at their peak. Still, this is one Powell and Pressburger film that deserves to be intact, and to be seen more often, and I'm glad Criterion has given us that opportunity.
Poor Hoffmann. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Director Martin Scorsese and Film-Music Historian Bruce Eder
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