One could object that The Tales of Hoffmann, not being a horror film by anyone’s definition of the term, has no right in being considered a Hallowe’en film. But this objection hangs upon the assumption that our seasonal and liturgical celebrations somehow essentially correspond to movie genres, and becomes completely exploded when one considers how many people treat Die Hard as a Christmas movie.
For indeed, Hoffmann is full of the ghoulish imagery we have come to associate with the holiday. For instance, there is a moment where Giulietta, a seductress and literal stealer-of-souls, gingerly navigates a granite floor which has been carved to resemble men’s bodies, contorted into expressions of agony, a haunting evocation of her character which could have come straight out of Dante.
Anyway, Hoffmann is a 1951 adaptation of the incomplete Jacques Offenbach opera by the same name, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (of Red Shoes fame). While most movie versions of operas tend to either be a filmed version of a stage performance, or a broadway musical reimagining of the source material (think Rent) Hoffmann is an earnest attempt to translate the opera into cinema. Granted, some editing and rearranging of the score has taken place, but I’m not familiar enough with the original to give any real commentary on it.
The story is about three tragic loves in the life of the German author, E.T.A. Hoffmann. This is fantasy, rather than biography: the three loves are based on three short stories written by Hoffmann, which have been reworked and given a framing narrative so that they now feature him (played by Robert Rounseville) as a protagonist. I wonder if other artist biopics would become more watchable if they attempted the same.
These loves are, in order, Olympia, who is a lifelike wind-up doll, the aforementioned seductress Giulietta, and Antonia, a terminally consumptive opera singer. All three loves predictably end in tragedy, abetted by three different demonic villains all played by Robert Helpmann. Also prominent is Hoffmann’s more level-headed best bud, Nicklaus a pants role played by Pamela Brown.
And then there’s Moira Shearer, returning from The Red Shoes to play Olympia and a ballet dancer that Hoffmann is pursuing in the framing narrative. I say playing advisedly for all these actors, for, aside from Rounseville and one other actor, everyone else has had their voices dubbed over by real opera singers. And Shearer’s contribution here is her dancing talent, The Red Shoes being successful enough for Powell and Pressburger to want to stuff more ballet into their work when they had the chance.
What prevents all this from becoming a somewhat staid assembly of classical talent is how the directors take advantage of the medium of film to do stuff that would be impossible in a stage production. But that still doesn’t capture their accomplishment, which is to take the somewhat fantastic source material and go wild with all the imagery they can wring from it.
The Olympia story, for instance, is set in a workshop featuring puppets who keep switching between being actual puppets, and being real actors mimicking the lifeless movements, and blank faces of their wooden counterparts. The painting which seems cute on the toys becomes grotesque and unsettling on human faces. And the use of Shearer in particular is brilliant and eerie, giving a jerky, doll-like performance that an opera singer would not be capable of.
The second story is set in Venice, and the filmmakers depict it in a state of decadence and decay. The waters seem turgid, and the men and the women seem hypnotically trapped in a never0ending cycle of mindless hedonism. All this is presided over by a demonic figure who uses Giulietta to steal men’s souls. The city as imagined here has become a literal hell on earth, and as Hoffmann engages in a fencing duel on a gondola, we realize that he is fighting for the salvation of his soul.
The final story juxtaposes images of tranquility with those of terror, as the shadow of death looms over Antonia’s life. It’s the most sober of the three, at least until….well I don’t want to give everything away here.
Another thing about Hoffmann is that, like many Technicolor films from the early-t0-mid twentieth century, it is less interested in seeming realistic than it is in being evocative. There are quite a few moments where no attempt is made to disguise the fact that you’re looking at some actors standing in front of a matte image. But it always comes across as convincing, fitting the surreal, dreamlike nature of the stories better than 90% of the CGI stuff out there.
The film’s big flaw – which, to be fair, likely originates from the source material – is that, from a dramatic perspective it can get pretty thin at times, with the story often completely submerged by the music and imagery. By the end, you don’t have much to chew on besides pondering Hoffmann’s poor romantic choices. But Hoffmann is more about the music and imagery than anything else, and they are more than capable of holding the film up on their own.
My point at the end of this is that Hoffmann is an excellent choice if you want a different kind of phantasmagoria this Hallowe’en. If you’re unfamiliar with opera and ballet, it may take some adjusting to. But hey, opportunities to feel cultured while wearing a werewolf mask don’t come very often.