Tales of Hoffmann welcomes you to a magical world, a world of fantasy and wonder, and a marvellous cinematic experience. This is a film quite unlike any other in the manner with which it takes a multitude of elements familiar to fairy tales, opera, cinema and ballet and combines them in a colourful explosion of artistic imagination. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger directed this glorious combination of culture and unique expressionism. The film has recently been restored, thanks to the recently discovered original prints at the BFI, and we now have the opportunity to view a number of sequence enhancements and a welcome epilogue which concludes the film in a more satisfactory manner than previous versions.
Jacques Offenbach’s opera telling the stories of romantic poet E.T.A. Hoffmann premièred in England in 1910. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham at the time and he was also instrumental to the film production as he conducted the score for this version. The opera is recreated with the actors/dancers performing the visual elements and the libretto being sung by opera singers (the exceptions are Robert Rounseville and Ann Ayars who both played and sang their respective roles) and with beautifully choreographed visual elements, required by the ballet theme, but also defined by the carefully refined, often dynamic, camera-work. Indeed the combination of camera movement or long takes to determine exact moments in time, connecting directly with the musical score, are contrasted with careful use of effects shots which enhance the fantasy elements of the story.
In a prologue we learn of university undergraduate Hoffmann’s (Robert Rounseville) love for ballerina Stella. Later, in a tavern, he tells tales of unrequited love, romances that are of a nature far too fantastical to have any hope of a happy outcome, because of circumstances that are beyond anyone’s control, whether they be fantastical, emotional, mechanical or all three. Olympia (Moira Shearer) is his first love but she is not strictly human, rather an automaton, constructed by spectacle maker Coppelius, with metal, cogs and clockwork, whirling in dance to animate her fleshless limbs. Venetian courtesan Giulietta (Ludmilla Tcherina) seems to be an ideal paramour in contrast, seducing Hoffmann in the surroundings of the sumptuously lit canals, but she betrays him, stealing his reflection for magician Dapertutto. And a promising relationship with an opera singer’s daughter Antonia (Ann Ayars), forbidden to sing lest she die, also appears to be doomed. Back in the tavern perhaps real love could be a possibility, indicated by a message written on a handkerchief wrapped around a mystical key. Or has Hoffmann been drinking too much in the telling of his tales?
An operatic portmanteau, Tales of Hoffmann is a cinephile’s treat, especially from its artistic, audio and visual perspectives. Its impeccable design, with a multitude of sets and backdrops that are lovingly crafted, is distinctive in its implementation, perfectly reflecting each of the scenarios on show. Similarly, the make-up and costumes range from beggar to aristocrat to fairy and enhance both characterisation and choreography. But the real cinematic prowess lies with the use of cinematographic processes beyond the loving compilation of composition and editing because the film integrates its marvellous visual effects seamlessly with the narrative, constantly changing the environment of colours, sets and sound. When the automaton Olympia is butchered, her limbs and head torn clean away, the effect is both technically awesome and genuinely shocking for the viewer. Magic is portrayed as alchemist science of coloured liquids or alien Frankensteinian mechanical engineering or a form of wizardry that transforms candle wax into bejewelled necklaces and back again, all apparently in a single shot. Michael Powell intended for this to be a ‘composed film’ and he succeeded in his ambition.
Well over 60 years after its initial release, the film has been restored in a form closer to the original intent. The Tales of Hoffmann is essential viewing for anyone who wishes to see art and magic collide. Extras on the disc include introductions from two of those filmmakers involved in supervising this loving restoration, Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker Powell.