The Tales of Hoffmann
February 25, 2006
Leading British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham conducted the ballet sequence in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948). He proposed filming one of his favourite operas (which he first conducted in 1910), Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. The opera was created in 1880 as a pastiche of stories by German writer and musician E.T.A. Hoffmann. Powell and Pressburger ended up blending the style of silent cinema with the vibrant look of Technicolor to produce The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), a film clearly ahead of its time.
Act One or “The Tales of Olympia” sees Hoffmann (Rounseville) as a young student and is set in Paris. There is a lustrous gold colour scheme that dominates this act, complete with a golden rooster at the head of the bed that a sleeping Olympia (Shearer) occupies. One of the highlights of this act involves a dance among layers of gold curtains with the dancers as larger than life marionettes and an incredible sequence where Olympia is literally torn limb from limb, all done in camera.
Act Two or “The Tale of Giulietta” is set in Venice with Hoffmann now a man of the world. This one is much darker in tone, much like Black Orpheus (1959), and features a reddish brown with green colour scheme. The final act, or “The Tale of Antonia,” takes place on a Greek island and is about a young opera singer suffering with a fatal dose of consumption while Hoffmann is now a famous poet.
With the innovative use of Technicolor, there is a heightened feel and look to the movie. Today, something like this would be done entirely on a green screen soundstage with extensive use of CGI but all of the hand-crafted costumes and sets of Powell and Pressburger’s version give Hoffmann texture. The movie is really a marvel of set and production design. In one sequence, two characters walk through a landscape occupied by huge steins that tower over them.
Looking at it now, The Tales of Hoffman was the predecessor of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s version of The Nutcracker (both feature a story about a doll coming to life) and, more recently, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001) by bringing the operatic to the cinematic with lavish production values and elaborate sets that create a fantastical artifice. Like Luhrmann’s film, Tales of Hoffmann is about lost loves and romantic tragedies but with a touch of the Grimm’s fairy tales. Powell and Pressburger’s movie maintains a dream-like mood throughout and is arguably one of the greatest operas ever put on film.
There is an audio commentary by filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who offers his personal recollections, and film and music historian Bruce Eder who focuses more on the production history of the movie. Scorsese first discovered Tales of Hoffmann on T.V. in the ‘50s. He saw it many times in black and white and became obsessed with it. The veteran filmmaker makes some excellent observations. Coming from his unique perspective, he certainly is intimately familiar with every aspect of this movie and speaks passionately about it.
Also included is an interview with filmmaker George A. Romero who reminisces about seeing Hoffmann as a kid and what an impression it made on him. He talks about his favourite scenes and what makes it such a great movie. Romero speaks with the engaging enthusiasm of a true cinephile.
There is also a theatrical trailer.
Also included is a “Stills Gallery” that includes a behind the scenes photos of cast and crew, stills from all three acts, international posters and lobby cards.
“Hein Heckroth Gallery” is a collection of the man’s design sketches and paintings for the film’s elaborate sets.
Finally, there is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a 13 minute short film Powell made in 1956 that reunited him with key crew members from the Hoffmann production. This is a rarely seen adaptation of the Goethe story and done in the same style as Hoffmann. This is a visually arresting piece and a nice companion to the main film.