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Tales of Hoffmann, The (1951)


Main image of Tales of Hoffmann, The (1951)
35mm, Technicolor, 127 mins
DirectorsMichael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Production CompaniesLondon Film Productions, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, British Lion Film Corporation
Producers/ScriptMichael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
MusicJacques Offenbach

Cast: Robert Rounseville (Hoffmann), Robert Helpmann (Lindorf/Coppelius/Dapertutto/Dr. Miracle), Pamela Brown (Niklaus), Moira Shearer (Stella/Olympia), Frederick Ashton (Kleinzack/Cochenille), Léonide Massine (Spalanzani/Schlemil/Franz), Ludmilla Tcherina (Giulietta)

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Three stories of the various loves of the poet E.T.A.Hoffmann: the animated doll Olympia, the Venetian courtesan Giulietta and the secluded singer's daughter Antonia.

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Based on Jacques Offenbach's opera of the stories of romantic poet E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Tales of Hoffmann gave Michael Powell the ultimate opportunity to create a fully 'composed' film. In Black Narcissus (1947), Powell had worked closely with composer Brian Easdale to create an extended sequence in which sound and image were intimately intertwined. The ballet sequences of The Red Shoes (1948) offered an obvious arena into which to continue this experiment, culminating in The Tales of Hoffmann, in which the entire film is shaped by the score.

Working to a pre-recorded soundtrack opened up numerous possibilities for the Archers. Actors and dancers mimed to the voices of singers, allowing the creation of imaginative set pieces such as The Ballet of the Enchanted Dragonfly (in Offenbach's original, Hoffmann's love, Stella, was a singer, not a ballerina). For Powell, whose formative years in film production were during the silent era, this meant The Tales of Hoffmann could be shot like a silent film, with the camera free to roam around the enormous sets that had been constructed on the giant sound stage at Shepperton studios. Production designer Hein Heckroth constructed sets that exploited these epic proportions and created different moods and themes for each of the three tales: sunshine-infused surrealism for the tale of Olympia; decadent reds, greens and blacks for the voluptuous and satanic activities of the Venetian tale; and classical blue for the Greek-set story of Hoffmann's love for Antonia.

The Tales of Hoffmann eschews realism and celebrates artifice and creativity: from the singing and dancing mechanical doll, Olympia; to the camera trickery that transforms a bejewelled necklace into a collar of wax and merges Hoffmann's four loves into one; to the ingenuity of Heckroth's designs which allow dancers to tiptoe down staircases that are painted onto the floor, and to disappear into an infinity contained within the bounds of the Shepperton studio.

Although Hoffmann was made at the suggestion of screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, the film gave him relatively little to do in terms of scripting. Instead he constructed the film in broad strokes and themes, allowing his passion for music, rather than dialogue, to lead him. Opera-loving Pressburger suggested the Archers' next collaboration, Oh... Rosalinda!! (1955), an adaptation of Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus which, like The Tales of Hoffmann, is rich in glamour, fantasy and continental charm.

Nathalie Morris

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. The Enchanted Dragonfly (2:49)
2. Olympia (3:46)
3. The Enchanted Necklace (3:22)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Oh... Rosalinda!! (1955)
Red Shoes, The (1948)
Brown, Pamela (1917-1975)
Challis, Christopher (1919-)
Heckroth, Hein (1901-1970)
Helpmann, Robert (1909-1986)
Mills, Reginald (1912-1990)
Powell, Michael (1905-1990)
Pressburger, Emeric (1902-1988)
Shearer, Moira (1926-2006)
1930s: The Invocation of Theatre in Film
Late Powell and Pressburger