The Tales of Hoffman

Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger (The Archers), UK 1951, 127 or 138 minutes


The Tales of Hoffman - the Archers' ballet-opera adaptation of Offenbach's opera about the German Romantic author E T A Hoffman and his stories - is an unusual, magical, cinematically brilliant movie that deserves to be seen.

With Tales the Archers sought to take their notion of a "composed film" - first seen in The Red Shoes's incredible 15-minute ballet sequence - as far as it could go, integrating sound and image to a degree rarely seen in non-animated cinema (another instance being the battle sequences in Eisenstein/ Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky). Hoffman's soundtrack was recorded first, and then the glorious Technicolor images were developed around it. Consequently the camera movements, the cutting and even the camera speed (accelerated or slow motion), reflect the sound and vice-versa. In turn, this makes The Tales of Hoffman distinctively cinematic, not merely a piece of filmed opera and ballet, in spite of its having sung rather than spoken dialogue and dancers rather than actors in most of the roles.

The stories, however, are confusing, so a brief summary might be helpful: In the prologue Hoffman watches a ballet, and falls in love with the prima ballerina (Moira Shearer). She appears the re-incarnation of his past loves, and when she spurns him he relates "three tales of [his] folly of love". In the first Hoffman falls for a dancer, Olympia (Shearer again), who turns out to be the mechanical creation of a magician. In the second Hoffman falls for a courtesan, Guilietta (Ludmilla Tcherina) whose master Dr Dapertutto uses her as a lure to steal mens souls. Finally, Hoffman falls in love with Antonia, a musicians daughter who suffers from consumption and may die if she too attempts to sing.

Some of Hoffman's themes, then, are common to Archers films: Antonia, like Vicky Page in The Red Shoes, finds life and art in conflict; while Hoffman's romantic frustrations are reminiscent of those of Colonel Blimp, where Deborah Kerr plays Blimp's eternally recurring idée fixé of the perfect woman. (Suspicious minds might wonder if the title character of The Man Who Loved Redheads, also starring Shearer, was partly inspired by Powell - given all these redheads in his films).

Finally, if you need further proof of Hoffman's brilliance, consider that it is a favourite film of directors like George A Romero and Martin Scorsese - indeed, Scorsese has acknowledged how he and Thelma Schoonmaker have used Tales of Hoffman's editing style time and time again. So you'll be in good cinematic company.

Review by Keith H Brown
Taken from EUFS Programme 1997-98


The partnership between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger began in 1938 when director Powell and writer Pressburger were brought together by Alexander Korda, head of London films, to work on The Spy in Black (1939).

After making three further films together, Contraband (1940), 49th Parallel (1941) and One of our Aircraft is Missing (1942) Powell and Pressburger formalised their partnership into The Archers. Under this name they made a series of films for the Rank Organisation, each one more audacious than the last — The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948).

The Red Shoes, perhaps the duo's greatest triumph up to this point, was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's tale. In the Archers' hands it becomes the dark fantasy of ballerina Vicky Page and the conflicts between the two men in her life, young composer Julian Cranster and sinister impresario Boris Lermontov. Lermontov demands complete commitment from his two proteges, and so is unwilling to countenance a relationship between them. Lermontov does get the dedication he demands of Vicky, culminating in her dancing the lead in his Red Shoes Ballet, but the results are ultimately tragic. For Vicky life and art fuse together as she gets carried to her death by the red shoes.

Ironically given its eventual commercial success, The Red Shoes was the film which precipitated a split between Rank and The Archers, who rejoined Korda's London films for their next film, The Small Back Room (1949).

Initially Powell and Pressburger were glad to be back with Korda. Soon, however, the partnership proved to be a difficult one. With Gone to Earth (1950) The Archers found themselves in the difficult position of trying to please David O. Selznick, the US mogul with whom Korda had struck a deal and whose wife, Jennifer Jones, was the star of the film. Then, with The Elusive Pimpernel (1950) The Archers were put to work on an abortive musical remake of The Scarlet Pimpernel, a property which Korda owned the rights to and has scored a big success with in the 1930s.

After these failures, The Archers took stock and realised the need to come up with an original film of their own before, in Powell's words, "Korda had us doing a musical remake of Sherlock Holmes." The result was The Tales of Hoffman, a brilliant return to form.

Taking its inspiration from the experimentalism of the centrepiece ballet sequence in The Red Shoes, but taking the whole process several stages further, Hoffman is an incredibly audacious piece of film-making. Powell and Pressburger succeed in combining several art forms — opera, in the shape of Jacques Offenbach's 1881 source opera, itself inspired by the fantastical tales of the German Romantic author E.T.A. Hoffman; ballet and cinema — into a work that is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

The Archers worked on The Tales of Hoffman as a "composed" film: Conductor Sir Thomas Beecham first made a recording of the opera, from a new English translation. Then The Archers filmed their adaptation around Beecham's recording, with the newly added ballet parts danced, acted and mimed to the pre-recorded sound track. Thus, The Tales of Hoffman was effectively created as if it were a silent film. Everything was shot in purely visual terms, the images based on Powell and Pressburger's impressions of the music. The result is one of the purest visual fantasies ever put on film, and a lasting testament to its creators' genius.

Hoffman begins with the eponymous narrator watching a ballet. He falls for the prima ballerina, who seems to be the reincarnation of a past love. The ballerina spurns Hoffman, however, leading him to tell three tales of his romantic failures. First, he falls for a dancer (played by Moira Shearer, already seen as the prima ballerina) who turns out to be the mechanical creation of a magician. Then he falls for a courtesan whose master uses her as a lure to steal mens souls. Finally, he falls in love with a musicians daughter who suffers from consumption and may die if she attempts to sing.

Thematically, then, Hoffman has much in common with other Archers films: Tale #3's implicit conflict between life and art has obvious parallels with The Red Shoes; while Hoffman's romantic frustrations echo those of Colonel Blimp and his pursuit of three different incarnations of his one ideal woman.

K H Brown, with acknowledgements to Bruce Eder
1997