“Why do you want to dance?”
“Why do you want to live?”
A question followed by another question stands at the beating heart of The Red Shoes. It’s an entirely rhetorical exchange, but it underscores the power and the mystery of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 masterpiece. For the respective speakers, a domineering impresario and a strong-willed ballerina, are talking about much more than dance. The real subject of their conversation, and of the film that contains it, is artistic dedication, even unto death.
Sounds rather grim for a work so beloved (countless all-time ten best lists), so inspirational (numerous references in A Chorus Line), and so influential (Gene Kelly screened it for his collaborators fifteen times before embarking on An American in Paris). But the film’s ebullient yet oddly sinister tone struck a chord with audiences the world over. This wide appeal can be understood in part in terms of genre. It is a kind of musical, a mainstream favorite, as well as a Technicolor spectacular. But musical generally comes as a hyphenate with comedy attached to it. The Red Shoes is drama. Perhaps the key to its power lies in the fact that it was created at a crucial juncture in history, and embodies that moment. As Powell says in his memoir A Life in Movies: “We had all been told for ten years to go out and die for freedom and democracy . . . , and now the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.” In taking artistic expression through dance so seriously, The Red Shoes goes well beyond the confines of a “backstage musical” into areas richer, deeper, and darker than any such film had ventured toward before—or would after.
That this film would prove so potent wasn’t at all obvious when the idea first took shape back in 1934. Film titan Alexander Korda, whose productions The Private Life of Henry VIII and The Scarlet Pimpernel had made Great Britain a serious rival to Hollywood, decided that he wanted to put together a project centering on the tumultuous life of the brilliant, troubled dancer Nijinsky—but with ample room to showcase his off- and on-screen leading lady Merle Oberon. In other words, a very tricky scenario. Screen tests of sundry ballerinas were shot by Ludwig Berger, then Korda’s choice to direct, and Pressburger was hired to write the script. Using Hans Christian Andersen’s dark fairy tale “The Red Shoes” as a plot pretext was also Korda’s idea at this early stage, though precisely how hadn’t been decided. So Pressburger, a Hungarian Jew who got his start as a scriptwriter in Germany—before Hitler’s rise necessitated a hasty exit for England—immersed himself in the world of the Ballets Russes.
That dance company was still world famous at the time, despite the passing of its great impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, in 1929: the dances it created, and its conception of dance as a total theatrical experience, had set the standard for terpsichorean excellence everywhere. The prospect of putting this on-screen was clearly tantalizing to Korda, who always had his eyes peeled for the big, colorful, and splashy. With the coming of World War II, however, the as yet untitled project was put off—definitively so when Korda and Oberon called it a day. But Pressburger was still excited by the idea, so he bought from Korda everything that had been developed for the project thus far, and in 1946 began in earnest to mount The Red Shoes, as it was then called.
By this time, Pressburger had formed an alliance with Michael Powell, a British director who’d cut his teeth on “quota quickies,” low-budget films decreed by the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927 to promote British production in the face of a Hollywood-dominated industry. They first worked together in 1939, on The Spy in Black, starring Conrad Veidt, and following the success of their 1942 One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, established their soon-to-be legendary production company, the Archers. With an arrow hitting a bull’s-eye as its avatar, the Archers went on to create such original and ambitious works as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I’m Going!, A Matter of Life and Death, and Black Narcissus, all dealing in one way or another with aspects of the British national character—in a manner that was celebratory but never without an insightful, critical edge—and always with a visually extravagant style. The Red Shoes raised the bar Powell and Pressburger had set for imaginative moviemaking even higher, including taking Technicolor, which they’d used so expressively in Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, and especially A Matter of Life and Death, into new realms: this time, they peered not into the afterlife, as that last film had done, but into the souls of human beings. Additionally, in contrast to their previous Anglocentric efforts, The Red Shoes found them looking toward the Continent.
While there was a recognizable division of labor between Powell and Pressburger, with the latter in charge of the screenplay and the former the directing, the Archers cosigned their films, the better to underscore the fact that not only did their roles frequently overlap but they stood at the helm of a group of craftsmen—cinematographer Jack Cardiff, production designer Hein Heckroth, composer Brian Easdale, and actor Marius Goring, to name a few—whose contributions to the whole should never be taken for granted. The Red Shoes reflects this in the story itself. For while it centers on a near megalomaniacal impresario, the brilliant young dancer he makes a star, and the youthful firebrand of a composer whose love for the dancer threatens the impresario’s authority, the film concerns an entire ballet company and the many different and talented people involved in making it run.
Powell and Pressburger decided to bypass Nijinsky and zero in on his lover-mentor Diaghilev. And while antihero Boris Lermontov isn’t depicted as sexually or romantically involved with anyone in an ordinary way, his obsession with dancer Victoria Page goes right to the heart of the Diaghilev-Nijinksy story. For like Diaghilev, Lermontov doesn’t wish simply to make his dancer a star—he wants to control her life in every possible way. But how can you dramatize that without totally alienating movie audiences? Powell found the answer in Anton Walbrook: “When it came to The Red Shoes and that devil Boris Lermontov, there was no question in our minds as to who should play him, and give a performance filled with passion, integrity, and, yes, with homosexuality.”
Born Adolf Wohlbrück, Walbrook came from a family of circus clowns but turned to acting from the start, studying with the great Max Reinhardt. Making a name for himself on-screen, he appeared in such hits as Viktor und Victoria (the 1933 precursor to Blake Edwards’s 1982 romp Victor/Victoria) and a 1936 sound version of the silent expressionist classic The Student of Prague. But Hitler’s rise to power made it impossible for an artist who was both gay and Jewish to do anything other than get out of Germany as soon as possible. Walbrook found a home in England, making a particularly triumphant appearance as a German émigré in the Archers’ wartime rouser The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, where he delivers the central patriotic speech with a resonance and sincerity that have never failed to move anyone who has seen it—even if they aren’t British. The Red Shoes required that Walbrook make a seemingly unsympathetic man sympathetic. And that he does, not by softening the character but by accentuating his mystery. While Powell and Pressburger saw Lermontov as one part Diaghilev and one part Alexander Korda (in his grandiose plans for his ballet), Walbrook’s own personality added something extra. The dark glasses that Lermontov wears—even on occasions when there isn’t any sunlight—were an affectation of Walbrook’s. It set a fashion that was taken up in earnest a decade later by sundry celebrities in Italy, during the dolce vita era known as Il Boom. His sartorial fastidiousness, coupled with a veneer of emotional reserve barely hiding a passionate sexual drive, is clearly what Powell meant when he spoke of the part played by Walbrook’s own gayness in the Lermontov role.
As for the object of Lermontov’s all-consuming attention, the Archers chose an actual dancer, Moira Shearer. A featured performer, but not yet a star, with the Sadler’s Wells ballet, Shearer proved, to Powell’s complete delight, to be that rarest of all cinematic supernovas: a natural. And she amply demonstrates that the filmmakers were right in seeking out a dancer for the female lead, rather than an actress whose performance would be supplemented by a ballet double. For when you look at Shearer, you see a dancer—even when she’s standing still. Adding to that is the way she so easily conveys the spirit of a young woman who knows what she wants for a career, and is willing to take on the powerful man who wants to give it to her.
Powell and Pressburger’s sensitivity to physical dramatic nuance is made plain in an early scene featuring another dancer-actress, Ludmilla Tchérina. While we get only a few shots of Tchérina rehearsing or performing in the course of the film, in this moment, when her prima ballerina, Boronskaja, guides the young composer Julian Craster (Goring) to the backstage area of the theater—briskly gliding through, head held high, in a manner that an ordinary actress would have found hard to execute—she makes her greatest mark. What she does in this scene is convey not only a dancer’s instinctive physicality but the soigné glamour of the ballet as a whole. This is carried a step further by Robert Helpmann, who plays a principal dancer and also choreographed the climactic ballet, called The Red Shoes. A fortiori Léonide Massine, who was a Ballets Russes dancer and choreographer and also Diaghilev’s protégé in the wake of Nijinsky’s departure. Like Shearer, Massine had never acted before, but one would never guess it from his exceptionally skillful performance as the antic Grischa Ljubov, who is as warm as Lermontov is cold. In the Red Shoes ballet, he plays the shoemaker (a role the film credits him with creating), the weird, long-haired figure who lures the girl into his shop to take the footwear that will both fulfill her dreams and end her life. That Lermontov casts the cheery Grischa in this role is downright diabolical.
Powell and Pressburger designed their film to climax with this ballet, running some twenty minutes in length. It was a concept quite without precedent. While the action that precedes the sequence charts the process of creation, this isn’t done by teaching the audience anything about dance steps or musical composition. Rather it’s the spirit behind the ballet that comes to the fore, as in the scene where Vicky, dressed in an elaborate ball gown, a tiny crown on her head, goes to see Lermontov at the château he’s rented just outside town. Climbing an enormous staircase overgrown with weeds, she suggests the sort of fairy-tale heroine Cocteau would have created had he made Beauty and the Beast in color. Powell and Pressburger’s Beast, Lermontov, has to deal with more than Shearer’s Beauty, however. For right after informing her that she will star in his next—and greatest—creation, he calls in Craster.
Earlier, Lermontov explained to the composer: “The ballet of The Red Shoes is from a fairy tale by Hans Andersen. It is the story of a girl who’s devoured by an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes, goes to the dance. At first, all goes well and she’s very happy. At the end of the evening, she gets tired and wants to go home. But the red shoes are not tired. In fact, the red shoes are never tired. They dance her out into the streets. They dance her over the mountains and valleys, through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by. Love rushes by. Life rushes by. But the red shoes dance on.”
“What happens in the end?” Craster inquires.
“Oh, in the end, she dies,” says Lermontov, with brisk matter-of-factness.
There are two elements that make this pivotal moment indelible. One is, of course, Walbrook—the dramatic stress he places when intoning “the red shoes” and “never tired,” the masterly cool with which he dominates the scene. The other is the sudden appearance on the soundtrack of the first notes of music for the ballet that Craster has yet to write. It’s already a part of him, Powell and Pressburger seem to be saying. It’s an assignment that’s ordained by fate. And so is its outcome. Julian and Vicky will not only work together as artists but fall in love. And this love will prove their undoing.
“You cannot have it both ways,” Lermontov tells Grischa, in a moment designed for Vicky to overhear. “The dancer who relies on the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.” He is speaking of Boronskaja, who in a scene just before—when she announced to the company that she was leaving to get married—looked beyond the circle of dancers happily congratulating her for a glimpse of Lermontov, who had suddenly left the room. “He has no heart, that man,” she said with pointed poignancy. The truth, of course, is that he does, but he hides it. We can see that in the shot that follows her declaration—Lermontov sitting in his office in complete darkness.
Or is he, perchance, the Prince of Darkness? The ballet certainly suggests that—for what we’re shown is not so much what’s going on on any imaginable stage but what’s roiling through Vicky’s mind as she dances. The audience is never seen, and we, the film audience, see more than anyone in a theater ever would. Not just in terms of an unobstructed, up-close view of the dance, but inside Vicky’s mind as Lermontov and Julian take turns partnering her while she dances through make-believe carnivals, ballrooms, deserts, and cloudy skies with pieces of cellophane falling, along with humans, as she drives ever onward toward obliteration.
The ballet is a kind of magic, psychodramatic tableau vivant. The Andersen story is enacted in it, but also the conflict among Vicky, Lermontov, and Craster. Fantasy and reality intermingle right from the start, when the shoemaker puts the ballet slippers on the ground and they stand by themselves, until Vicky suddenly, and quite magically, leaps into them. As the ballet progresses, color and atmosphere become as important as dance steps—especially when the gaiety of the initial moments gives way to despair and horror. Cardiff’s lush, textured cinematography works hand in hand with Heckroth’s production designs, as a public square becomes a carnival, a nightscape of monkey-headed streetwalkers, an empty ballroom, and an even emptier desert. Strangest of all is one long shot where we see the girl pirouetting in the foreground while in the background dancers appear to be worshipping a grotesque, seemingly living mask that hangs on a stone wall. Offstage, things are worse, as the action builds to the wrenching scene where Craster and Lermontov demand she choose between them—which she clearly cannot.
“Take off the red shoes,” Vicky pleads to Julian at the last. But the red shoes can never really come off—just as The Red Shoes once seen can never be forgotten. Particularly not in this stunning new restoration, for which restorers went so far as to meticulously repair (using the latest digital technology) the original negatives, the better to give the film new, vivid life. But The Red Shoes is clearly more than a film. It’s a complete and indelible expression of life and art themselves.
David Ehrenstein has been writing about film since 1965, for such publications as Film Culture, Film Quarterly, Film Comment, Cahiers du cinéma, and Positif. His books include The Scorsese Picture: The Art and Life of Martin Scorsese and Open Secret: Gay Hollywood, 1928–2000.