Lose yourself in the fantasia of Powell and Pressburger’s acclaimed and newly restored Opera adaptation
It’s easy for me to fall under the bewitching spell cast by the films of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger. With lavish production design and mind-blowing visual effects that seem effortlessly executed with an equal amount of exacting detail, the films of the British duo are guaranteed to show me something I’ve never seen before. With The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, and A Matter of Life and Death, each of the films I’ve been lucky to watch have the gripping drama of something by Noël Coward with the creative flights of fancy of Fritz Lang. There’s a delicate and irresistible line toed between fantasy and reality, with tempestuous emotions vividly and viscerally brought to life in swirls of dreamlike three-strip technicolor.
The Criterion Collection has released 9 of Powell and Pressburger’s nearly 30 years’ worth of collaborations. However, a much-needed upgrade to their release of The Tales of Hoffmann has been long-awaited by fans of both the pair and label. Featuring a 2015 restoration conducted in collaboration by Studiocanal, The Film Foundation, and the BFI National Archive, this new Blu-ray features one of Powell and Pressburger’s most infamous collaborations at a new visual peak, restoring not just reference-quality video and audio, but previously-lost scenes and credits sequences cut from American releases. In addition to equally lavish special features featuring interviews and commentary from Martin Scorsese and George Romero, The Tales of Hoffmann is an absolute must for collectors of Criterions and classic British cinema.
Loosely inspired by the life of the famed German poet, E.T.A. Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) guides a drunken bar audience through three surreal stories of love and heartbreak, all brought phantasmagorically to life by Powell and Pressburger. From Olympia the Automaton (Moira Shearer), Giulietta the vexing courtesan (Ludmilla Tchérina), and finally, to Antonia the star-crossed Opera singer (Ann Ayars), Hoffmann recounts how he and each of his loves found themselves at a tragic crossroads between love and art. All the while, Hoffmann and his newest love, Stella (also Moira Shearer), are stalked by the evil Councillor Lindorf (Robert Helpmann), whose shapeshifting permutations each play a diabolical hand in the demise of Hoffmann’s many loves.
What took me by surprise in The Tales of Hoffmann is how little of a divide there is between the real and dream worlds in this film, taking the technicolor frenzy of The Red Shoes’ iconic ballet sequence and spinning a whole film out of it that’s wholly devoted to an inescapable magical realism. Central to the effect are jaw-dropping sets by Hein Heckroth and magician-quality visual effects by Powell and Pressburger that lend classic silent cinema in-camera trickery to modern ballet. The team constantly plays with perspective and optical illusions throughout, whether it’s a staircase painted on a flat floor at an angle or a robot-dismembering sequence that cleverly combines in-camera editing with skillfully placed black velvet. The film’s standout sequence, set in the bacchanalia of Venice, combines on-set water illusions, disappearing reflections, and jewels that change to wax and back again. These tricks happen without warning and almost instantaneously, as if Powell, Pressburger, and company know that to let these magical moments linger too long would mean spoiling them entirely. As such, while they’re glimpsed only for a short while, they linger in audiences’ minds like half-remembered dreams, a potent quality that’s constantly one-upped throughout the entirety of Hoffmann’s runtime. It’s a nonstop showcase for Powell and Pressburger’s talents, featuring the duo at their most artistically unrestrained.
The film also is a mature continued exploration of the duo’s fascination with the deadly intersection of Art and Desire (which Powell would also pointedly continue with his later film, Peeping Tom). The Red Shoes placed its central ballerina precariously between a life devoted to artistic fulfillment or romance in reality; A Matter of Life and Death trapped its heroic pilot in a battle between the real and supernatural in the name of love; Black Narcissus created an inescapable feeling of dread that heightened the real world to the level of fantasy. Here, The Tales of Hoffmann plunges us into the moral deep end of artistic expression, which is as much of an escape for its artist as it is for his audience. These dreamlike escapes into the recesses of memory are as craved by Hoffmann as anyone else–in going over his tragically beautiful memories of how his love interests are corrupted by an outside figure, he’s able to divorce himself from just how culpable he was in their fates, or how his own ambition or possessions of love blinded him from the dangers in his midst.
It’s a toxic yet addictive sense of perpetual escape, one that fractures his current love Stella into three personas. His best friend Nicklaus (Pamela Brown), always by Hoffmann’s side, is always conscious of his ironic folly, but Hoffmann is too blind to heed his warnings. Likewise, Hoffmann also fails to recognize the plot against him and Stella which bookends the film. He’s far too caught up in the sorrow that made his art immortally famous to recognize how he’s creating another step in the pattern.
While I’m not familiar with the ending of the stage production, a cursory glance details how Nicklaus reveals himself to be the Muse of Art itself, further giving a redemptive weight to Hoffmann’s suffering. But by excising this, Hoffmann feels far more human. His fantastical escapes become more of an exhilarating coping mechanism tinged with self-imposed suffering. There’s no confirmation that his art is the reward for his suffering; rather, the cycle of how he suffers for his art is allowed to continue forever, with no end in sight. Much like the rest of Powell and Pressburger’s filmography, Hoffmann’s blindness to his own culpability is beautiful because of how he realizes it for others–and we as an audience fully understand just how easy it is to surrender to a world of fantasy than deal with the harshness of reality.
Criterion presents The Tales of Hoffmann in 1080p HD in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, sourced from a 4K restoration of the original 35mm nitrate three-strip Technicolor negative by The Film Foundation and the BFI National Archive, in association with StudioCanal. Previously-deleted sequences in Act Three and a never-before-seen curtain call sequence at the film’s ending were discovered and included for this restoration, sourced from 35mm separation master positives curated by the BFI National Archive. The film’s monaural English audio track was restored from a 35mm soundtrack positive. Restoration supervision was done by Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker Powell, and Vice President of Mastering for Warner Bros. Technical Operations Ned Price. English SDH subtitles are included solely for the feature film.
Where past releases of The Tales of Hoffmann suffered due to frequent misalignments in the three-strip technicolor negatives, this stellar transfer individually restored each of the three negatives before digitally combining and cleaning up any remaining errors. The result is likely the best The Tales of Hoffmann will ever look, short of an actual 4K UHD release. Hein Heckroth’s sets and costumes are infused with a new vitality, with colors that use as broad of a color palette as possible. The minute details that lend Powell and Pressburger’s visual effects their power are well represented here: for example, where past transfers showed the sharp contrast of black velvet in the Olympia dismemberment sequence, the deep blacks and shadows of this transfer now make the sequence feel all too real. The film’s monaural English track still possesses all the bombastic flair of the original Opera, though at times the dialogue and lyrics can be washed out by the chaos of background elements. For a film that was shot wholly to playback, the restoration also does a great job of ensuring actors’ lip-synchs match with the audio–though the errant moments where the timing doesn’t match play well into the dreamlike nature of the film.
- Audio Commentary: A 1992 archival audio commentary by Martin Scorsese and film critic Bruce Eder from Criterion’s Laserdisc release of Hoffmann, which has been updated by Eder in 2022 for this release to include discussion of the film’s newly-restored additional sequences.
- George A. Romero: A 2005 archival interview featuring the late creator of the Dead series, talking about how Hoffmann inspired him to become a director. One of the best anecdotes is how, without either director’s knowledge, he and Martin Scorsese would alternate renting out a 16mm print of the film while both were living in New York, and would be frustrated when the print wouldn’t be available due to the other.
- Stills Gallery: A selection of behind-the-scenes and production stills and marketing materials for Hoffmann’s international release.
- Hein Heckroth Gallery: A selection of the frequent Powell and Pressburger collaborator’s design sketches and reference materials for Hoffmann’s complex, painterly sets and art direction.
- The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: A 1956 musical short film directed by Michael Powell, based on the story by Goethe. Much like Tales of Hoffmann, Sorcerer’s Apprentice features a beautifully exaggerated take on the classic fairy tale also popularized by Disney’s Fantasia, transforming it into a ballet set amidst Hein Heckroth’s painterly sets with moments of English narration. In Standard Definition.
- Theatrical Trailer for The Tales of Hoffmann’s original 1951 release.
- Essay from Criterion’s 2005 DVD release of Hoffmann by film historian and Powell/Pressburger expert Ian Christie, which reckons with the film in relation to its directors’ careers, how the film improves upon and differs from the original (unfinished) 1880 source material by Jacques Offenbach, its perplexed reception upon opening in 1951, and its lasting impact on modern auteurs like Romero and Scorsese.
The Tales of Hoffmann is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.
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