Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1951 film of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann – newly restored to its full 138-minute glory, including a delightful curtain call for all the performers as seen through the film’s magic spectacles – is eternally astonishing. That such a gorgeous, daffy, erotic, demented Technicolor pageant could emerge from the British film industry at a time when the dominant mood was black and white, emotionally and economically austere and inclined to drab realism remains a bizarre mystery. The makers must have been aware of this because they have conductor Sir Thomas Beecham defiantly stamp ‘made in England’ in gilt over the end title.
Mounted in the afterglow of the success of The Red Shoes, partly to find another showcase for red-headed ballerina Moira Shearer, Hoffmann is an entirely stage-bound fantasy based on an 1881 opera (which Offenbach didn’t live to see performed) based on a play based on the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822). By default, it’s a key horror anthology and an early instance of metatextually incorporating an author into his own world by mixing up his fantasies and his life. Offenbach and librettist Jules Barbier tease the historical Hoffmann by making him the fall guy of his own biography: the poet (Robert Rounseville) falls in love with a robot, is seduced by a Satanic harlot, can’t save a doomed singer and gets so drunk on his own storytelling that he lets the love of his life fall into the clutches of his shapeshifting arch-enemy Councillor Lindorf (Robert Helpmann). With highly stylised sets that play tricks with the eye and non-stop music, it has the feel of a Cabinet of Dr Caligari in colour and sound… and similarly slips between levels of reality in the telling of these tales.
The plot has Hoffmann passing the time before an assignation with Stella (Shearer), the ballerina he loves, in a Nuremberg beerhall where he entertains boozers with episodes from his own life (‘Olympia’, ‘Giulietta’,’ Antonia’), which are actually versions of his most famous stories (‘The Sandman’, ‘The Lost Reflection’ and ‘Rath Krespel’) and find him involved with women in Paris, Venice and a Greek Island. Hoffmann was one of the first great horror writers, and these stories influenced Mary Shelley, Poe (a lot), Sheridan Le Fanu and others. Each of these tales stands at the head of a sub-genre – lifelike doll/mad scientist, soul-selling pact with the Devil, Usher-like recurring family tragedy – and showcases a beguiling, yet strange woman. In the prologue, Shearer’s Stella dances in an insect costume tighter and more revealing than any female superhero has ever dared… but her role as Olympia, the life-size wind-up doll Hoffmann sees as real through magic specs, is one of the cinema’s great inhumans, along with Brigitte Helm in Metropolis and Boris Karloff in Frankenstein. Dancing and singing with impossible virtuosity, until she runs down and has to be wound up, Olympia is an unresponsive love object – she may not be real but the feelings she inspires are. At the climax of her dance (the aria is ‘Les oiseaux dans la charmille’, also known as ‘The Doll Song’), as her creators argue over her, she literally comes apart… that blinking severed head sprouting copper springs is a nightmare punchline for a joke that Powell takes seriously. Note the aside of ‘half-man, half-puppet’ Cochineel (Frederick Ashton) fetishising a severed hand.
In ‘Giuletta’, Hoffmann is ensnared by a courtesan (Ludmilla Tchérina) in Venice, who is collecting souls for the devilish Dappertutto (Helpmann). This story runs to an amazingly explicit orgy, a fast and peculiar duel in a gondola, the haunted Schlemil (Leonide Massine) sporting silver double eagle epaulettes, the stately yet creepy barcarolle (‘Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour’ – the hit of the show) and the seductress’s bare feet treading on the sculpted faces of damned victims. ‘Antonia’ is a precursor of the Corman-Poe films, especially ‘Morella’ from Tales of Terror and Tomb of Ligeia, with a consumptive heroine (Ann Ayars) led by sinister Dr Miracle (Helpmann) to sing herself to death under the influence of her dead mother. It’s a strong story, but the weakest episode because Ayars, who acts and sings, isn’t as inhumanly desirable or exotically terrifying a presence as Shearer or Tcherina. Pamela Brown, in drag as Hoffmann’s devoted (but slightly unhelpful) friend, is another weird, sexually confusing player, while Helpmann (who might be auditioning for a great unmade Dracula movie as the multi-faced villain), Massine (who does comedy and horror) and Ashton (funny yet poignant as broken-hearted jesters) show why dancers often make great screen performers.
This is a one-off, even in the extraordinary Powell-Pressburger filmography – there’s just so much in it. Make the effort to see this on a big screen.
Watch the trailer: