Friday 6 March 2009

The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Stars: Moira Shearer, Robert Rounseville and Robert Helpmann

Today there's so much talk about intellectual property that it's easy to get the impression that it's unethical to ever base anything on something that someone else has created. Well, here's great proof that that's complete nonsense. It's a classic of English cinema: written, produced and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were already hugely established as a powerful double act after such classics as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus, among others. It also reunited them with Moira Shearer, who had been so spectacular three years earlier in The Red Shoes.

Yet it's based on a French opera, a classic in its own right, called The Tales of Hoffmann, written by Jacques Offenbach and first performed in Paris in 1881. The opera itself, as the title might suggest, was based on three short stories by the German poet and writer E T A Hoffmann, written between 1814 and 1818: Der Sandmann, Rat Krespel and Das verlorene Spiegelbild. So what we have is a English film based on a French opera based on German short stories with a gap of seventy full years between each version. This is operatic in style and entirely sung but is staged cinematically rather than being merely a filmed record of a stage production, even though the opening credits are accompanied by an orchestra tuning up.

The three stories are separate but linked through interpretation and a framing story featuring the poet himself. Hoffmann is in love with a dancer called Stella, currently appearing in a three act ballet called The Enchanted Dragonfly. She is in love with him also, but he has a rival for her affections in the sinister Lindorf. The actors are capable as actors but are really here for their singing or dancing talents, usually the latter as most of them are dubbed by uncredited others. For instance, Stella is Moira Shearer, a professional dancer returning to the screen for the first time after The Red Shoes, and who performs a striking opening dance with Edmond Audran in amazing costumes tight fitting enough to not leave much to the imagination.

Hoffmann himself is played by the only male actor in the film to actually sing his own part, opera singer Robert Rounseville. Lindorf is Robert Helpmann, a noted stage dancer who gave his name to Australia's annual entertainment awards and who is best known on screen for a couple of memorable roles in children's films: the Mad Hatter in the 1972 English version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Here he looks amazingly like Boris Karloff, though naturally he's a little smaller. Partly it's through the characters he plays but mostly in the way he stands and how his eyes flare. I'm sure this was a deliberate influence.

Hoffmann travels through the stories as himself, telling of the three lost loves of his life. All are personifications of Stella and his love for each is threatened by evil in the form of characters that are personifications of Lindorf. Helpmann appears in each but Shearer only in the first. This one is interesting but a little overlong to someone like me who enjoys some opera and some ballet but is left cold by most of it. She's Olympia, an innocent puppet created by a genius scientist called Spalanzani. Hoffmann falls for Olympia after Coppelius, the evil Lindorf character in this section, sells him magic spectacles that, when worn, make the puppets appear alive. After the glasses break during a dance she is cruelly and spectacularly destroyed.

The second features smouldering and exotic Ludmilla Tchérina as Giulietta who appears to be nothing but a trap for Hoffman set by her satanic master, Dappertutto, a collector of souls. This is the section that features the famous Barcarolle, which is certainly the most striking music in the opera, but apparently not originally composed for it, having been added after his death from one of his earlier and lesser works. Hoffmann loses his shadow and presuably his soul for love hof Giuletta, but through a duel with a previous victim wins his freedom and escapes.

The third, which is officially the second but they apparently get shuffled all the time on stage, takes place on a Greek Island where Hoffman is reunited with Antonia, who he loves. In this segment she's played by Anne Ayars, who like Rounseville sings her own part. She's the daughter of a famous opera singer, now deceased, and she's inherited her mother's talents, though because she's sick her father has forbidden her to sing. Enter Dr Miracle, who promises to heal her but of course merely prods her into singing herself to death.

I'm not sold on the music or the dancing, though they certainly add to the amazing sets and costumes that provide a perfect backdrop for these stories. Most of the credit here presumably belongs to Hein Heckroth, a German designer who had worked to great effect with Powell and Pressburger before, notably in The Red Shoes. He designed the sets here and some of the costumes. To my mind these designs are the biggest triumph of the film, which makes the fact that they comprised both the Oscar nominations the film received hardly surprising. The dark stories of Hoffmann come next and I'll have to seek out them out on Project Gutenberg. The direction is more than capable and the acting really isn't bad, especially given that the cast are comprised of people who are singers and dancers first and actors second.

Technically it's flawed but partly deliberately, I would think. Having seen many of their other films, I'm sure that Powell and Pressburger could have made the effects far more realistic, but they presumably chose not to do so here in favour of more theatrical effects. On that front I think they did a great job, though part of me wishes that I couldn't see through them quite so easily. Less forgiveable is the fact that the voice work is not particularly well synched to the actors. Apparently the whole film was shot without sound, with the soundtrack dubbed in later and with the exception of Anne Ayars, who sang her own part, nobody looks like they're really singing, however great they look otherwise. It isn't just that the voices often don't match the movements of the actors' mouths but more that the obvious power generated is generally utterly unreflected in their body movements.

This would appear to be a better visual experience than an auditory one. I was tempted to turn the sound off and pretend that it was a silent movie. That seems bizarre to say when watching an opera but it's not so far fetched. After all nobody speaks in the film, everything is sung an not necessarily easy to follow even though its done in English translation. The stories are really mostly interpreted though dance and dance is entirely visual. A few sections, notably the ending that unites all four faces of Stella on the same screen through cinematic trickery, are entirely without vocals. It's these such scenes that work best for me. I wonder if that's understandable or whether it's more akin to heresy.

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