Tales from the Lives of Marionettes

Why would a filmmaker simply film an opera? Many admirers of Michael Powell’s have assumed that the decision to make The Tales of Hoffmann, in 1950, was in some way an admission by Powell and his long-term partner, Emeric Pressburger, that they couldn’t go on making their edgy, over-the-top melodramas after the rejection and interference they’d suffered with The Red Shoes (1948), The Wild Heart (1950), and The Elusive Pimpernel (1950), and so had taken refuge in “merely” filming an opera.

This, however, is to assume that Les contes d’Hoffmann is a conventional opera, and that the film is less ambitious than their earlier dramatic work. In fact, there is a strong case for regarding Jacques Offenbach’s final, unfinished score “as a work like no other” (according to musicologists Arthur Jacobs and Stanley Sadie), with its “peculiar intermingling of reality and fantasy,” looking forward to the dreamworlds of such twentieth-century operas as Béla Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Leos Janácek’s The Makropoulos Affair. And there’s an equal case for considering The Tales of Hoffmann as one of the finest and boldest works that Powell produced, so far ahead of its time as a wholly “composed” film, combining visual and musical elements, that it has still not been fully appreciated, except perhaps by its tireless champion, Martin Scorsese, who recalls seeing it on television in his youth as a formative experience. Late in his life, Powell himself said that he thought it was one of the best films that he and Pressburger had made.

What makes the film so remarkable is a series of paradoxes: the fact that it virtually reinvented the freedom and fantasy of silent cinema while making full use of Technicolor and a stellar cast of dancers and singers; and that by remaining faithful to an 1880 opera, Powell and Pressburger managed to make a highly personal film that develops the themes of The Red Shoes into a more elemental statement about the fate of the artist. Whereas Vicky Page has to choose between devotion to dance and a “normal” life, Hoffmann has to fight to retain his soul and his sanity in a world of malevolence and seduction, before accepting that the muse of poetry demands complete devotion.

The starting point was a proposal by the leading British conductor and impresario Sir Thomas Beecham, who was already a legendary figure in the music world. Independently wealthy, he had founded orchestras and opera companies, and was noted for his championing of French and English composers at a time when German music was dominant. With his numerous recordings and concert programming of music by André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry, Hector Berlioz, Georges Bizet, and Emmanuel Chabrier, as well as Offenbach, he helped create a taste for French musical elegance and wit. Beecham had already worked with Powell and Pressburger on The Red Shoes, lending his prestige to that film by conducting the central ballet sequence. Now he proposed that they film one of his favorite operas and made an informal guide recording at the piano for the filmmakers. The opera itself had an unusual history. As the last and most ambitious project by Offenbach, and the only true opera by the Second Empire’s favorite confectioner of popular operettas, it drew on separate stories by the German romantic writer and musician E. T. A. Hoffmann to create a phantasmagoria of the artist’s inner life. Left unfinished at Offenbach’s death, it was not performed until a year later, after being completed by a colleague. Beecham presented the first production in Britain as early as 1910, and the work would remain specially associated with him.

Compared with Offenbach’s more lighthearted entertainments, such as Orpheus in the Underworld and La vie parisienne (a film version of which Pressburger had worked on in 1935), Les contes d’Hoffmann has a darker theme: the hero is the poet himself, supposedly recalling his disappointments in love as he waits in a tavern for his beloved Stella to appear. In each of the three episodes, the object of his infatuation turns out to be manipulated by a sinister older man, who is, in fact, the same figure in different guises, and Hoffmann’s nemesis. In each case, Hoffmann, heedless of his skeptical companion Nicklaus, believes he is loved, only to have his fantasy cruelly shattered. The music of his odyssey through love may be moving and memorable, as with the famous Barcarolle from the central Venetian episode, but the underlying emotion is pessimistic and disillusioned, reaching a climax when Hoffmann realizes that he has lost Stella as well to the sinister Svengali, now in the guise of a councillor.

Les contes d’Hoffmann demands fantasy, but it can also have realistic settings, with its three acts set in Paris, Venice, and Munich (the last becomes a Greek island in the film). Yet Powell and Pressburger’s approach was to create a completely artificial fantasy world in the studio, encouraging designer Hein Heckroth to create bizarre sculptures and trompe l’oeil effects—like a carpet painted with a staircase in the opening episode, “down” which Hoffmann dances with Olympia—with puppets instead of extras and freakish costumes. More radically still, the soundtrack was recorded first—as in animation—and the entire film shot to playback, which allowed for the use of dancers and actors in most of the parts, other than those of Hoffmann and Antonia (sung and acted by tenor Robert Rounseville and soprano Ann Ayars), and thus the extraordinary expressivity of Red Shoes veteran dancers Robert Helpmann, Leonide Massine, Moira Shearer, and Ludmilla Tcherina.

The same technique would later be used to excellent effect in Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954), where all but one member of the visible cast is dubbed, but in The Tales of Hoffmann it not only realizes the opera’s original intention that all of the poet’s rivals be different manifestations of the same character—we recognize Bruce Dargavel’s voice as Helpmann transmutes into a maker of automata, a Venetian sorcerer, and a demonic doctor—but also allows some highly original “improvements” to the opera. That Barcarolle, usually sung by Hoffmann’s companion and the Venetian courtesan Giulietta, becomes a duet between Giulietta and her reflection, turning the sequence into an intensely poetic exploration of illusion and identity.

For Powell, who had begun his career in the silent era, entranced by the magical atmosphere of Rex Ingram’s company of bohemians—which he joined at its Nice studios in the mid-twenties—this was a chance to reassemble and add to the company of great artists already recruited for The Red Shoes. Massine had danced with Sergei Diaghilev; Helpmann was not only a principal dancer in the Vic-Wells company but had produced a series of stunning, original ballets with modern and futuristic themes; and Shearer was a rising star of English ballet. Joining them for The Tales of Hoffmann was the choreographer Frederick Ashton, who also appears in the film, and a range of leading singers, both on- and offscreen, giving the film the maximum expressive potential. It was also a return to the freedom of purely visual filmmaking, without the demands of synchronous sound recording. Powell delighted in being able to use different camera speeds and the same primitive “magical” effects used by cinema’s pioneers for such sequences as Olympia’s dismemberment, when Shearer’s limbs and head seem still alive as she is fought over by her enraged creator and his defaulting client.

The Tales of Hoffmann is certainly a riot of color and exuberant performance, and made a welcome splash in the drab world of 1951, when Britain, like the rest of Europe, was still struggling to recover from the ravages of war. Its appearance coincided with the Festival of Britain, a government-funded attempt to boost the national morale by celebrating past achievements and looking to the future. London’s riverside Festival Hall and the forerunner of the National Film Theatre both date from the festival project to rehabilitate the city’s bombed South Bank and to reassert British creativity in the arts—which probably explains the mischievous shot at the very end of The Tales of Hoffmann, in which this thoroughly international production, inspired by England’s most cosmopolitan musician, who is seen laying down his baton, is finally stamped “Made in England.”

But was England ready for it? The film inevitably disconcerted many, who found the combination of Heckroth’s expressionistic surrealism, already seen in the decor of the Red Shoes dream ballet, and Powell’s total embrace of stylized performance disturbing. Even one of Powell and Pressburger’s strongest supporters among the rising generation of critics, Raymond Durgnat, ridiculed the film’s visual style, suggesting that it could best be appreciated as a “bad taste classic.” Unlike Jean Cocteau’s recent Orpheus (1950), which explored the theme of poetic alienation in a cool, “modern” manner, and was correspondingly well received, The Tales of Hoffmann had to wait until its shock tactics no longer distracted from its underlying seriousness and originality. No doubt the extravagant fashions of the sixties and seventies, from flower power to glam rock, have helped make the film feel less outrageous, while Derek Jarman’s use of flamboyant costumes in his films, from Sebastiane to Jubilee, seems directly indebted to The Tales of Hoffmann.

Jarman, of course, was often suspected of putting style before substance, and there is a traditional English suspicion of the image that has undoubtedly worked against The Tales of Hoffmann’s reputation. Yet as long ago as 1968, the critic Thomas Elsaesser bracketed the film’s romantic pessimism with that of Orson Welles and the Jean-Luc Godard of Contempt. And we might add to this list Ingmar Bergman’s puppet motif in From the Lives of Marionettes. Critics have been slow to follow the appreciation of filmmakers as diverse as Scorsese, Jarman, and George A. Romero. But instead of holding it at a distance, as “filmed opera,” we can surely now see it as a vital link in the erotic chain that leads from Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), with its three versions of the same female ideal; through the tortured, tragic heroines of Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes, and The Wild Heart; and on to the women who dare to enter the threatening male worlds of Peeping Tom (1960) and Bluebeard’s Castle (the last of Powell’s three opera films, made in 1963). In The Tales of Hoffmann, the poet is deceived by all the women in his life, or rather by his distorted images of them; and his reckless pursuit of beauty and new experience makes him an easy victim of the malevolent magician, in all his guises. Freud drew on E. T. A. Hoffmann’s original stories for his classic 1919 essay “The Uncanny,” interpreting their concern with loss of vision as symptomatic of castration anxiety. More recently, Romero has shrewdly identified Helpmann’s multiple role as that of a shape-changing Dracula, which may offer a further clue toward its interpretation. When Powell and Pressburger withhold the opera’s final consolation—that Hoffmann will be strengthened as a poet by his experiences of loss—we can read this conclusion, both pessimistic and ironic, as a bitter comment on the fate of the artist in cinema. Dracula gets the girl, leaving the dreamer to drown his sorrows, and us with a gorgeous yet disturbing feast for the senses.

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