The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)
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With the audacity that Powell & Pressburger were famous for we are presented with a wonderful performance of a truly "composed" film. All the soundtrack was recorded by Sir Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and then the filming was all done on the open stage (it didn't need a sound stage) at Shepperton.
With choreography by Sir Frederick Ashton and performances by ballet luminaries such as Moira Shearer, Ludmilla Tchérina, Robert Helpmann, Léonide Massine and Sir Frederick Ashton himself. Assisted by opera stars such as Robert Rounseville and Anne Ayars and the Sadler's Wells Chorus. All this backed by the designs of Hein Heckroth and the experienced team of technicians that worked regularly under the banner of The Archers leads to a treat to behold.
The plot - from a 1951 (year of release) programme.
The Prologue : The Opera House in Nurnberg (Nüemburg). Hoffmann sits in the auditorium watching a performance of the Dragonfly ballet. He is in love with Stella, the prima ballerina, who seems the embodiment of all his past loves. In the interval Hoffmann goes to Luther's Tavern. Here young students greet him. He sings them the ballad of Kleinzack. But the sight of Stella has reopened old wounds. "Would YOU hear the three tales of my folly of love?" lie asks. The students gather round the punch bowl, with Hoffmann's companion, Nicklaus, who has accompanied him throughout his adventures, and his enemy Lindorf.
The Tale Of Olympia : As an inexperienced student in Paris, Hoffmann was tricked by two puppet-makers, Spalanzani and Coppelius, into falling in love with their latest creation, the doll Olympia. Spalanzani passes Olympia off as his daughter and hopes by this means to get some money from Hoffmann. At a ball given for her, Olympia sings the "Doll Song" and dances a ballet. Hoffmann is entranced. Only when Spalanzani and Coppelius fall out, and Coppelius destroys the doll in revenge does Hoffmann realise how he was fooled.
The Tale Of Giulietta : As a young man of the world, he was enslaved by a beautiful Venetian courtesan, Giulietta. Acting under the influence of the magician Dapertutto, Giulietta captures his reflection and so gains possession of his soul. Hoffmann kills her former lover Schlemil in a duel, to get the key to her room. He hurries back to her, but finds she has left with Dapertutto. Mad with rage, he flings the key against her mirror. It cracks, and his reflection reappears. He has regained his soul.
The Tale Of Antonia : As a mature artist and poet, Hoffmann falls in love with Antonia. Her mother, a singer, has already died of consumption (Tuberculosis). Crespel, her father, through grief at his wife's death, is now the half-mad wreck of a formerly great conductor. Crespel keeps his daughter in seclusion on an island in the Greek Archipelago and forbids her to aggravate her own weakness by singing. He also forbids his deaf servant Franz to admit either Hoffmann or the quack Dr. Miracle who killed his wife. Franz misunderstands, and in turn shows them in. Hoffmann realises Antonia is ill, and she promises him not to sing again. Dr. Miracle persuades her it is her mother's wish she should disobey. She does so, and dies in his arms.
The Epilogue : On the stage of the Opera House, it is the finale of the Stella Ballet. In the tavern Hoffmann's audience is spellbound. Hoffmann's tales are told and with the telling Hoffmann finds his true destiny as a poet. Stella appears at the door of the tavern and looks down at him. But Lindorf, who has also understood the meaning of the Tales goes to meet her and together they pass out into the town.
In "The Tales of Hoffmann", Robert Rounsevill stars as E.T.A. (Ernst Theodore Amadeus) Hoffmann, the poet and writer who tells three stories of his great but unhappy loves all ending tragically thanks to the meddling of his enemy, a supernatural villain (Robert Helpmann as quadruple evil, Lindorf, Coppelius, Dapertutto and Dr Miracle). Objects of Hoffmann's love and admiration include Olympia the wind-up doll (Moira Shearer who also plays Stella the dancer, the fourth and yet another Hoffmann's misadventure), Giulietta, the Venetian courtesan who sails away after trying to capture Hoffmann's soul (Ludmilla Tchérina -absolutely brilliant as the siren and the seductress who elegantly walks over the dead bodies, literally), and Antonia the beautiful opera-singer with the fatal voice and deadly illness. One of the greatest choreographers and dancers of the last century, Léonide Massine shines in three absolutely different roles demonstrating his talent as a dancer, strong emotions and tremendous humor.
What makes "The Tales of Hoffmann" not just an ordinary screen adaptation but the stunning unforgettable event, the film which had inspired the future famous directors George Romero and Martin Scorsese to become the filmmakers is the perfect combination of fantasy, classical music, ballet, singing, stunning visual effects, imaginative and often bizarre and even disturbing images that would fit a horror movie (deconstructing Olympia the doll is horrifying), incredible but calculated feast of colors, their mixture, the unique color palette to match each story, camera work that is so innovative and dynamic that even now, 56 years after the film was made, looks fresh and modern. The feast for eyes, ears, and feelings, "The Tales of Hoffmann" is the love child of incredibly talented people from different epochs and countries. The opera by Jacques Offenbach, the French composer is based on the dark romantic fairy tales by the German E.T. A. Hoffmann. The team of two directors known as "The Archers", the British Michael Powell and the Hungarian Jew Emeric Pressburger who had to flee his country before the WWII, and their international team of stars, color consultants, choreographers and production designers made this miracle happen. The last but not the least is legendary Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
In the story a poet Hoffman tells in episodic fashion about the many times that he has loved and lost. There have been several films made with such a theme but Hoffman stands well apart because of the Goth-fantastic nature of the narratives. Hoffman, in turn, falls in love with Olympia - a puppet, Guiletta - the temptress of a soul-stealing demon, and Antonia - a singer doomed by fatal consumptive illness.
This narrative is complemented by the brilliantly supportive artistic design of the film. The makers construct a deliberate stage-like ambiance, with the use of representative backdrops, suitably exaggerated props and striking motifs to convey the settings and moods of the various episodes. In this aspect it shares strong kinship with Masaki Kobayashi's period ghost story anthology Kwaidan. You also have the concept of the same actor returning to play different parts in the various episodes of Hoffman's life, the most notable of which is Robert Helpmann who portrays the sinister element in all the episodes (and with his vampiric menacing look, does a terrific job of it, although his motive for evil in the Antonia episode goes unexplained).
The fantastic elements of the plot, color-drenched distinctive look, intricate balletic choreography and excellent fit of all the actors in their roles make Tales of Hoffman a very interesting watching experience on the whole.
One of my caveats with the film is that Hoffman's companion Nicklaus is never properly explained. Who is this woman in man's garb and why is she doing what she does?
I first saw this as a 14-year-old in an art theater in San Antonio, Texas. I was impressed by what to me then was the complexity of the action, but the overall stories were explained by the theater manager over the speakers before each act started.
The overall effect was stunning to a growing boy. I'd seen The Red Shoes, but this was the whole schmear -- opera, ballet, and movie effects all at once.
It was not until much later that I understood the film to reflect the phases of a man's romantic perspective. The first tale was of a doll -- pure beauty. The second stage was purely sexual, with the action focusing on desire, up to and including a fight to the death to enter the woman's "private place" -- in this case, the boudoir. The final stage was the frailty of humanity, with Hoffmann urging the lovely Olympia to forego her great talent to save her life.
In all cases, Hoffmann remained unfulfilled -- even in the epilog.
The presentation was excellent for its time. The "artsy" effect helped establish the film as being set in a world other than ours, which added to the effect. Some special effects were uninspired; others, very good. A high point was Hoffmann losing his reflection.
Run, do not walk, to purchase the newly released Criterion DVD. It is worth every penny. Never has the color been so lush and the detail so finally delineated. And I know, I have pursued (rare) showings of this film nearly all my 50 years. If you think you've seen Hoffman before, wait until you see this!
On first viewing, my reaction to it was mixed: it's impossible not to be impressed by the visuals (particularly the stylization of Hein Heckroth's colorful and imaginative designs) but, since I'm no expert in classical music, I wasn't bowled over by Jacques Offenbach's score (apart from the celebrated "Barcarolle" piece) - especially since the lyrics, despite being an English translation, aren't easily followed! However, listening to it with the Audio Commentary, I could better appreciate the way it was made and the special effects that were adopted; especially interesting was the fact that it was filmed silent, thus allowing freer camera movement. The main cast, apart from Pamela Brown, is made up of ballet performers and opera singers - with the former, mostly recruits from THE RED SHOES, carrying the more compelling screen presence.
The framing story - featuring an additional ballet composed by the film's conductor Sir Thomas Beecham - is a bit short, so that we mostly learn about the characters played by Robert Rounseville (as Hoffmann) and Robert Helpmann through their various guises in the former's three tales (which are themselves variable in quality):
i) the "Olympia" sequence, highlighting Moira Shearer and Leonide Massine, is overlong but quite charming; Helpmann's distinctive features are rather buried under some quaint make-up - though his violent destruction of Shearer (who plays a doll) makes for a quite unsettling moment!
ii) "Giulietta" is the best and most interesting sequence, but also the shortest: Ludmilla Tcherina is a very sensuous heroine, while Helpmann and Massine are wonderful (and wonderfully made up) as respectively an evil magician and a (literally) soulless officer under both their spell; this sequence features some incredible imagery - like Tcherina's reflection in water picking up the aria she is singing, her walking over sculptures of dead bodies, Rounseville and Massine's saber duel set to music (i.e. presented without any sound effects) and the scene in which Rounseville loses his reflection when tempted in front of a mirror by Tcherina
iii) the "Antonia" sequence is again too long (it was severely cut in the original U.S. theatrical release) and, because it's mostly straight opera, emerges as the most labored segment: Massine is pretty much wasted here, while Ann Ayars is nowhere near as captivating as Shearer or Tcherina; however, Helpmann's belated entrance as the satanic Dr. Miracle takes the sequence to another level, and especially memorable here is the scene where Ayars exits a room only to re-enter it from another door (which must have inspired a similar incident in Mario Bava's KILL, BABY, KILL! ) and the one where Ayars and Helpmann's dancing figures are divided into four to fill up the entire screen - with the latter taking each of his guises in the different segments and, likewise, the former being replaced with the heroines of each tale (Moira Shearer appears twice here as she also plays Stella, Hoffmann's love interest in the framing story!)
The Archers' films are among my favorites - though I was somewhat underwhelmed by I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING! (1945; I still haven't purchased the Criterion SE), THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE (1956; amazingly, both of my two attempts to view it in the past have only managed to put me to sleep!) and, now, THE TALES OF HOFFMANN. I've yet to watch 4 of their collaborations - CONTRABAND (1940; I've been tempted, time and again, to buy Kino's bare-bones DVD but the over-inflated price always got in the way!), THE ELUSIVE PIMPERNEL (1950), GONE TO EARTH (1950; this troubled production isn't likely to see the light of day on R1 DVD anytime soon, but is at least available via a budget-priced R2 edition), and their last 'musical' together OH, ROSALINDA! (1955). I would also like to watch Powell's solo films HONEYMOON (1959) and BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE (1964), which are yet two more musically-oriented ventures.
The Tales of Hoffmann is a linear descendant of Powell's and Pressburger's The Red Shoes. The same themes of art, love, life and choices are explored. Even some of the same artists are present: Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Leonide Massine and Ludmilla Tcherina. The Tales of Hoffmann, however, stakes out new ground. Powell and Pressburger have taken an opera and turned it into a fantasy of cinema unlike any opera ever staged, or any film ever made. It moves from light, amusing and eccentric to dark and sinister. An undercurrent of romanticism is present, but we end up with romantic pessimism. Hoffmann's three poetic loves all are unattainable, and the prime cause always are figures who resemble Lindorf. He fares no better with Stella.
The film may be an opera, but it seamlessly interweaves ballet and the camera itself. Things blend, disappear, shift and change, and all within one of the greatest production designs I've ever seen. Hein Heckwroth, who worked with Powell and Pressburger on some of their greatest films, such as Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death, created a visual world for the film which calls on expressionism, romanticism and surrealism, all in such a lush style as to be startling and hypnotizingly satisfying. The story of Olympia is accented with bright yellow; the story of Giulietta is a sensual red; the story of Antonia is a tragic blue. Powell works within all this with flourishes and images that are gripping: Puppets, gorgeous and grotesque, that come to life; Olympia flashing about en pointe, only pausing to be wound up again; Giulietta, in jeweled black tights with a green scarf around her head flowing back in the breeze, standing motionless in a gondola as it slowly moves across a lagoon; candle wax that turns to jewels and then turns again to wax; a carpet that becomes a flight of stairs that remains a carpet; dancing grotesques that step from beer mugs. We watch all this played out in color so intense and rich it's mesmerizing. In America, Vincent Minnelli has often been called one of the great production stylists in movies. In my view, his work on such films as Ziegfeld Follies, The Pirate or Yolanda and the Thief, with their billows of purple smoke and endless lengths of pastel gauze, can't hold a candle to Powell. Both can be lush, but while Powell comes up with intense images for inventive storytelling, Minnelli often seems just overwrought. The Tales of Hoffmann really is a masterpiece that combines art of many disciplines, including production design, into one extraordinary film about art.
And yet...the movie in my opinion is an acquired taste. While many people may like the idea of lavish Technicolor images, fewer will go for ballet, and even fewer for opera. The tension between art and love may be too ephemeral for many to pay attention to. And as amusing as many of Powell's flourishes are, you have to be alert to appreciate most of them. I'd urge you, if you liked The Red Shoes, to take a chance. Watch The Red Shoes again. Then read the program notes by Ian Christie before you put on The Tales of Hoffmann. Watch it when you have plenty of time. Don't feel you have to watch it without taking a break (a good time for one is between the stories of Olympia and Giulietta). If you're absolutely sure you don't like it, well, wait a few weeks and just watch again the tale of Olympia. You might surprise yourself. And for those who already like The Tales of Hoffmann, or may like it, welcome to the Powell and Pressburger fan club.
The only drawback is that I am now completely smitten by Ludmilla Tcherina, one of the most beautiful works of God, and would sell my reflection to get hold of the 'missing' Powell and Pressburger films she also stars in, 'Oh... Rosalinda!' and 'Honeymoon.'
If you loved 'The Red Shoes', you have to see this.
But the drawback is that only the tale of Olympia, the mechanical doll, and the ill-fated love affair with the young Hoffmann (played in all three segments by tenor Robert Rounseville) is up to the top standards the film strives to achieve. The other tales of Hoffmann's follies are less interesting, not as easy to understand and not as entertaining or melodious as the Olympia segment.
The final tale of Antonia suffers from the high notes forced upon screeching soprano (Anne Ayars) and the demands of the score which is clearly more tedious than melodious at this point.
Robert Helpmann as the villain in all three tales is excellent and Robert Rounseville as Hoffmann is the only cast member who does his own singing in a strong tenor voice. You may remember him as Mr. Snow in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel" with Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones.
But there's no denying the magic of all the visual images on screen which includes the use of puppets and a good mixture of cinema and stage techniques. Opera lovers will find fault with some of the singers but it's hard to see any fault in the dancing which looked magnificent to me.
None of the stories are as involving as "The Red Shoes" and this is one of the weaknesses of the film. The first story is far better than the rest of the tales which makes for an uneven blend of storytelling.
A brilliant use of color and classical music makes it a "must see" for most film buffs.
There are highly imaginative touches throughout the film, especially during the Olympia act. The most comical of the stories, here it is given a nightmarish aspect too. The ballroom scene (with the "dancing" mannequins) is cleverly done and the destruction of the doll is startlingly graphic.
While the Olympia act emphasizes dance, the Giulietta and Antonia acts (here shown second and third, respectively) are somewhat more static and the emphasis switches to the atmosphere of the sets. Giulietta inhabits a convincingly dark, gothic Venice; Antonia appears to live in a Grecian ruins, symbolizing the state of her health.
Various alterations have been made for reasons of style and length, but there are two that I find questionable, and both relate to the character of Niklaus. First, nearly all of his singing has been cut, leaving him to do little except stand on the sidelines and occasionally roll his eyes or make a brief remark. Second, he is never identified with the Muse, not even in the epilogue. Without being familiar with the opera, the audience would have no idea why a supposedly male character is played by a woman. Since the Muse is gone, her message -- that "love makes us great, but suffering makes us greater" -- is also missing. Instead, we are left merely with a depiction of Hoffmann's downfall. Even aside from the missing Muse, the epilogue feels rushed and anticlimactic. If running time was the issue, it would have been better to cut the pretty but irrelevant Dragonfly ballet from the prologue.
These criticisms aside, the film is imaginative, original, and daring in its unconventionality. Even if you don't like it (as I did), you surely must admire it.
Despite these changes, the film still maintains the spirit and essence of the story and opera. The dancing is just as dazzling as the film's visuals, Robert Helpmann is wonderful in all four roles particularly good as Dappertutto, but it was Moira Shearer's Olympia that really impressed. The singing is every bit as good, Robert Rounsville has a strong tenor voice as Hoffmann, Bruce Dargavel sings Coppelius, Dappertutto and Dr Miracle with just the right character and velvety evilness and Margharita Grandi(with Ludmilla Tcherina on film) striking as courtesan Giulietta, contrasting very well in the beautiful Barcarolle with the firm and very intelligently sung Nicklausse of Monica Sinclair. Dorothy Bond sings with clear, agile colouratura. Less successful is Ann Ayers as the consumptive and very downbeat Antonia, fine on screen but vocally at times she is a little shrill for my liking.
Overall though, just another masterpiece from Powell and Pressburger that is will always be special to me. 10/10 Bethany Cox
The story begins in Nuremberg as Hoffmann watches the object of his affections, Stella (Moira Shearer) dance a ballet. During the intermission, he goes into a tavern and tells the customers about his three major affairs.
Opera singers, with two exceptions, dub the stars, who are mostly from the ballet world; several will be familiar from The Red Shoes: Moira Shearer, Ludmilla Tcherina, Robert Helpmann, Léonide Massine, and Frederick Ashton. Only Hoffmann, Robert Rounsville, and Antonia, Anne Ayars, do their own singing. The rest of the vocals are provided by Dorothy Bond, Margherita Grandi, Monica Sinclair, Joan Alexander, Grahame Clifford, Bruce Dargavel, Murray Dickie, Owen Brannigan, Fisher Morgan, and Rene Soames.
Both the singing and dancing are absolutely magnificent, the beautiful Shearer dancing much better than she did in The Red Shoes several years earlier, and Powell and Pressburger fill the opera with fantastic effects and colors. My favorite is Shearer's doll ballet sequence, with the glorious coloratura singing of the Doll Aria by Dorothy Bond, a discovery of Sir Thomas Beecham, who conducts the orchestra. Tragically she was killed in a car accident the next year; she deserved to be one of the most famous sopranos who ever lived.
There are a couple of problems with this incredible piece. It's done in English, which due to the tamber of the high soprano voice, can make it difficult to understand. So people who know the opera would probably enjoy it the most. Secondly, it's not paced very well - there are some very draggy sections; some of the chorus work could have been cut.
The overall effect for the eyes and ears is fabulous, but "The Tales of Hoffmann" leaves one depressed for how far we've fallen culturally in this world. Imagine mounting this film today. How many people would attend? Five?
still discovering very imaginative details in costumes and sets. This is just a visual plus to what is a general artistic treat.
I first saw this movie in a little art film theater in Washington, D.C., to which I was taken by a young lady of whom I was enamored when I was a sophomore in college. I was blown away. The young lady is long gone from my life if indeed she is still alive but I am eternally grateful to her for introducing me to this opera. Since then, all young ladies of my acquaintance with whom I might wish to develop a closer relationship were required to sit through a performance of either the movie or the opera itself on a stage. Those who were unmoved were not invited again -- anywhere. Both my wives passed the test.
Over the years I have seen innumerable performances of this opera, each weirder and more bizarre than the ones that went before (one version at a highly regarded opera house has the cops raiding the orgy) as various opera companies tried to come up with an interpretation that might most closely reflect what Offenbach wanted (he died before he finished it). For me, however, the movie, of all things, is the standard by which I judge all other interpretations even though only Rounseville actually sings his own part and all the singing is lip-synced. It is a marvelous achievement in the lushest of Techniclour.
To me, the most erotic scene in all of filmdom, or opera, for that matter, is the seduction scene between Giulietta (Ludmilla Tcherina, RIP) and Hoffman (Robert Rounseville).
Its not as miraculous as "Red Shoes." But it is bigger. It is folded like Shoes, but less delicately. In the case of the previous project, the story was about a performer, who glided in and out of the movie and the movie within, the two overlapping magically.
Here we have the same dancer, the marvelous, redheaded Moira Shearer. And her dance merges with the movie, but the movie is a heavier construction:
It is a movie of an opera of a ballet performance wherein we embed three stories. The stories themselves fold into each other, each a story of Hoffman in love with a woman manipulated by an evil man-spirit. He's the same man in each case, of course. In each of the four cases (the three stories and the outside of the ballet), he prevents the lovers from uniting.
These guys Powell and Pressburger, don't know much about the immediacy of storytelling. They don't know long form pacing. They don't know deep emotional engagement. But they sure know how to stage some of the most marvelous effects and build to them. They know something about photographing dance and what balance means to a camera. And they are perhaps the masters at cinematic folding: the ways of visually ambiguating the play and the audience.
I may put this on my list of films you must see before you die. We'll see how I feel about it in a month, if I still am affected in my dreams.
One thing that enhances this: Hoffmann is in love with Moira's Ballet character, someone he says embodies all three of his previous, lost loves, the first of which is also Moira. She's redhead. The director's love is also a redhead, one Pamela Brown who plays Hoffmann's (male) attendant. He remained devoted to her for the 25 years until her death. His attentiveness to her, hers to Hoffmann, and Hoffmann's to Moira's character is a sort of circle. Its ironic then that Moira's participation in Powell's two ballet movies ruined her career.
I saw this together with "Nightdreams," a porn film from the early eighties. It was episodic like this, worked with women stereotypes like this in a context of extreme fantasy and demons, and helplessness. Same sort of notion: story, tension, attraction, obsession. A different class in terms of skill of course and cinematic breadth, and the story here is more genteel in term of genitals. But a disquieting similarity.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
A curiosity: Lazzaro Spallanzani, an important part in the first act played by Leonide Massine, was like Hoffmann himself a very real character, a medical universal genius and Hoffmann's colleague, who happened to die today (11.2) in 1799.
In other words, the combination of visuals and performances both physical and oral stand as matchless by the others I have since experienced. Since the intellectual and aesthetic requirements of mass audiences have since greatly diminished it's very unlikely that we will in the foreseeable future ever see any production of this opera on film to come anywhere near to this one. If you can locate the DVD somewhere and are taking the time to read this, grab it.
"Actually, there have been suggestions that the "Antonia" episode be moved from last to first episode sequentially in the opera..."
One of the endless "discussions' musical historians have . . . it appears that that was the way Offenback originally intended it to be, altho he revised the work so many times, who knows? The Antonia segment works much better as opera, with the devastatingly beautiful finale . . .
" If I am correct, the "Antonia" episode was completed by another composer..."
Not true . . .
" ... Offenbach having died before completing Tales of Hoffmann."
Not really true . . . he just never considered it finished, the way many composers and authors view their works.
" Ahhh...that hauntingly beautiful "Barcarolle"....nothing can compare to it!! "
Yes there can , , , the Barcarolle was lifted, musically intact, from a much earlier (and less successful) Offenbach work . . . Doesn't render it any less beautiful.
A great, great opera . . . and a fun way to introduce novices to the art.
The main one is the truncating/smudging of important story points which makes it look, at the end, as if Stella is simply leaving Hoffman because he is a drunk. But the main criticism for lovers of French opera is the impossibly gaudy English translation of the lyrics which make the simplest sentiments sound contrived and overly florid. I am a translator myself and there were countless occasions during this film when I itched to reach for my red pencil and correct the words to replace them with something more flowing, more comprehensible and, most of all, more simple. There are only so many circumlocutions and grammatical inversions a normal sentence can withstand in the course of normal discourse, outside Yoda's Oscar acceptance speech! Words like "abjure" should also be banned from the translator's vocabulary forever. I'm not saying Powell and Pressburger should have ordered a new translation from Ira Gershwin or Stephen Sondheim, but they should certainly have modified the one they were stuck with. To add insult to injury, anyone who wants to follow the words on the DVD's subtitles has to contend with a bad transcription by someone who was evidently as puzzled by this horrible mess as the rest of us.