The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)
The Tales of Hoffmann is a revolutionary film adaptation of an opera that was released in theaters in 1951. That year, because of my love of classical music, my mother took me to see it. I was nine years old. The movie had a major effect on me, and thought about it a lot. When the soundtrack album was released, my mother bought it for me, and I played it over and over, looking at the pictures in the insert. The discovery of the first VHS tape release of the film in a New York City record store is the subject of my short story called Immaculate Journey, from around 1992.
The Tales of Hoffmann is a 1951 British Technicolor opera film written, produced and directed by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger working under the umbrella of their production company The Archers. It is an adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s 1881 opera The Tales of Hoffmann, itself based on three short stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann…
In the later years of his partnership with Pressburger, Powell became interested in what he termed “a composed film,” a marriage of image to operatic music. The finale of Black Narcissus and the ballet sequence of The Red Shoes were earlier steps toward his goal.
The Tales of Hoffmann is an achievement of this ideal, as the entire opera was pre-recorded to create the soundtrack, and the film was edited to the rhythms of the music. The production is completely without dialogue and, with the exception of Robert Rounseville and Ann Ayars, none of the actors did their own singing.
Each tale is marked by a primary colour denoting its theme. “The Tale of Olympia”, set in Paris, has yellow contours highlighting the farcical nature and tone of the first act. “The Tale of Giulietta” is a hellish depiction of Venice, where dark colours, especially red, are used. The final tale, set in Greece, uses different shades of blue, alluding to its sad nature. The set design is deliberately made to look artificial with the costumes similarly stylised. The opening scene of the “Tale of Giulietta” (in which Giulietta performs the “Barcarolle”, the most famous theme of the opera) is staged on a gondola that moves through deliberately artificial Venetian canals, although it does not seem to actually move on the water.
The Tales of Hoffmann was in production from 1 to 16 July 1950 at Shepperton Studios in Shepperton, Surrey, UK.
Reportedly, Cecil B. DeMille sent a letter to Powell and Pressburger saying: “For the first time in my life, I was treated to Grand Opera where the beauty, power and scope of the music was equally matched by the visual presentation.”
For the 2002 Sight & Sound poll, George A. Romero called it his “favourite film of all time; the movie that made me want to make movies.” Three years earlier, Romero had introduced the film as part of the “Dialogues: Talking with Pictures” programme at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival. Romero later taped an interview for the Criterion Collection edition, discussing his love of the film and its influence on his career. Martin Scorsese, an ardent fan of Powell and Pressburger, provides an audio commentary track on the Criterion edition.
In a book on the British cinema, André Bazin is quoted as saying:
The cinema thus creates here a new artistic monster: the best legs adorned by the best voice. Not only is opera liberated from its material constraints but also from its human limitations. Lastly, dance itself is renewed by the photography and the editing, which allows a kind of choreography of the second degree where the rhythm of the dance is served by that of the cinema.
In March 2015, the 4K restoration of the film, produced by Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation, the British Film Institute and Studiocanal, was released in the U.S. by Rialto Pictures. The restored version runs 136 minutes, including a final-credits sequence of all the performers and singers not seen in any previous releases.
Martin Scorsese describes his obsession with Powell and Pressburger’s 1951 film The Tales of Hoffmann and its 4K restoration.