BY Tom Newth in Profiles | 19 AUG 15
Featured in
Issue 173

The Restoration of Powell & Pressburger’s 1951 Film, The Tales of Hoffmann

Restored to dazzling 4K resolution by Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation, in The Tales of Hoffmann, art and imagination are the foundation of the world

BY Tom Newth in Profiles | 19 AUG 15

The Tales of Hoffman, 1951. Courtesy: British Film Institute and StudioCanal

A single refrain runs through film director Michael Powell’s autobiography, A Life in Movies (1986): ‘All art is one, man, one.’ Increasingly, from the lavish fantasy of A Matter of Life And Death (1946), he became fascinated with using every resource at his disposal to exploit all possibilities of art through cinema. This culminated in the supreme artifice of The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), restored this year to dazzling 4K resolution by Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation, in conjunction with the British Film Institute and StudioCanal.

Powell’s interest in a maximal cinema stemmed both from the excellence of his art department, and from a fascination with what he called ‘composed’ film; that is, one for which the soundtrack is recorded first and then used as playback for the actual filming. These two elements first came together for the finale of his Himalayan-set, studio-built Black Narcissus (1947), a highly atmospheric, wordless suspense sequence shot to Brian Easdale’s prerecorded score. He had been intrigued by descriptions of Friederich Feher’s The Robber Symphony (1937), an operetta to playback. Powell never actually saw it, but his partner in The Archers production team, Emeric Pressburger, had written several operetta films, a popular pre-war German genre. These functioned like conventional musicals, with songs punctuating stretches of dramatic dialogue and action. What The Archers were after, however, was something more: a motion picture outside of the ordinary – fully sung, danced and production-designed to within an inch of its life.

The Archers attempted this several times: in the climactic ballet sequence of The Red Shoes (1948), Moira Shearer dances clear off the stage into a dream realm of art director Hein Heckroth’s devising. (In a step beyond usual practice, his storyboard sketches were animated to the music prior to filming.) Then there is the short ballet The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1955); the exhilarating ‘El amor brujo’ sung ballet sequence of Honeymoon (1959); and several unrealized projects including, mouth-wateringly, a version of The Odyssey starring Orson Welles, with libretto by Dylan Thomas and music by Igor Stravinsky. But it was with The Tales of Hoffmann that The Archers created their apogee of total cinema.

What makes this ‘total’ rather than simply ‘composed’ film is the attempt to fulfill the rarely achieved promise of cinema as a container for all other arts: painting, dance, music, architecture, sculpture, poetry. ‘Composed’ film can describe the conventional Hollywood or Bollywood musical, with song sequences filmed to playback, or instances such as pre-composed scores for Once upon a Time in the West (1968) or Mishima (1985), by Ennio Morricone and Philip Glass respectively. Opera has been plentifully filmed away from the stage, from Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954) to Straub and Huillet’s Moses und Aron (1973) via Joseph Losey, Ingmar Bergman and even NBC's Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) and Billy Budd (1952). Dance films are, curiously, less often attempted, although Maya Deren and Norman McLaren each conducted interesting experiments in choreography for film, and Rudolf Nureyev and Robert Helpmann created a true dance film with Don Quixote (1973), from the Minkus/Petipa ballet.

The Tales of Hoffman, 1951. Courtesy: British Film Institute and StudioCanal 

‘Total’ film has been a grail for only a few filmmakers and, even then, rarely with a conventionally musical form. Jacques Rivette’s incomplete tetralogy Les filles de feu (Girls of the Fire, 1976), sought to create a form of cinema in which words were of secondary importance to the movement of bodies and camera (with music improvised onscreen), with lesser roles filled by dancers. Jacques Tati did likewise for his masterpiece Playtime (1967) – albeit without conventional song and dance. Tati’s world-building extended to the notoriously ruinous Tativille – an artificial, trick-filled city – and, although typically assembled after filming and not pre-composed, his meticulously constructed soundtracks of background burble were an idiosyncratic form of non-stop musique concrète. More successful are the extraordinary dance sequences of Busby Berkeley, which leave realistic, physical space far behind for a musical reverie of geometrically arranged moving bodies. Closer still is the 16-minute ‘An American in Paris’ sequence from the end of the eponymous Vincente Minnelli film (1951), a direct crib from The Red Shoes and thus an ironic victor over The Tales of Hoffmann for Best Production Design at the 1952 Academy Awards. Francis Ford Coppola’s artificial musical world of One from the Heart (1982) seems to follow Powell’s ideal of total film, but The Tales of Hoffmann’s only real successor is the remarkable Austro-Indonesian production Opera Jawa (2006), a delirious, fully composed mélange of song, dance and design.

Powell and Pressburger were the only constants of The Archers’ 15-year existence, yet their frequent collaborators were indispensable members of the close-knit company: in particular, cameramen Jack Cardiff and Christopher Challis, production designers Heckroth and Alfred Junge, editor Reggie Mills, jack-of-all-production-trades Sydney Streeter and composer Easdale. The Red Shoes, for example, would have been impossible without the radical camera rig (dubbed ‘choreocinema’) and kinetic imagination of Cardiff, and the fantastical world of The Tales of Hoffmann owes its creation as much to the designs of Heckroth, the in-camera effects of Challis, and the supreme freedom of the camerawork (operated by a young Freddie Francis), as it does to Powell’s hubris.

The Tales of Hoffman, 1951. Courtesy: British Film Institute and StudioCanal 

The film revels in the expressiveness of these various departments. Rather than travel to Paris, Venice or a Greek island, The Archers elected to create their own environments by filming in the studio; unlike the impressively realistic Himalayas of Black Narcissus, however, there is no attempt to disguise the studio stage, and it is here that form and content so perfectly align, the environments and camera style exulting in the possibilities of artistic expression, and the very permeable divide between fantasy and reality, art and life.

In the film, the poet Hoffmann relates the tales of three doomed loves, each abounding with illusion and sensual deception. The film elides the opera’s original denouement, wherein he realizes that these love affairs are of secondary importance to his calling as a poet: that their significance is primarily as fodder for his art. Art’s supremacy is implied by Heckroth’s sets, in their gleeful artificiality, bold colour-coding and artistic allusions, such as to Arnold Böcklin’s painting Isle of the Dead (1886). And, although this is adamantly not filmed opera, the idea of the stage remains ever-present in specific but open-ended spaces – an impression of boundlessness, with the stage as a starting point for the infinite possibilities of art, severing all tenuous ties with ‘real’ space.

The camera ranges freely over these sets, moving from the vertical axis to the horizontal and back again, and using jump cuts, mirror shots, varying speeds and backwards-running film. This is exploitation of the medium’s own special magic to its fullest: a combination of charming transparency and evocative expansiveness, such as Moira Shearer’s ‘severed’ leg waving from behind a black curtain or Ludmilla Tchérina singing the celebrated Barcarolle as a duet with her own reflection in the Venetian lagoon.

In a manifesto written in support of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), The Archers asserted: ‘No artist believes in escapism.’ As consciously artificial as these settings may be, they are the backdrop to recognizably human experience and emotion. But those arts whose workings we find hardest to explain – dance, song and décor – are less vehicles to express emotion than to create it; the point is not so much to illustrate Hoffman’s emotional experience than to conjure one for the audience. If, in The Red Shoes, art and imagination transform the real world, in The Tales of Hoffmann they are the foundation of the world, created through all the means at the filmmakers’ disposal: total film.

Tom Newth is a filmmaker and programmer based in Los Angeles, USA.