Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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Submitted by Roger Mellor
The only time my mother took me to the movies as a small child was to see a double bill: The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann. Afterward, I wanted to see The Red Shoes over and over, and so I also saw The Tales of Hoffmann repeatedly. All that stayed with me of the latter film was a feeling of chaos, darkness, mystery, in an unreal world I wished was real. And I remembered one specific image: a woman, with a man, somehow controlled by him, in the midst of a world of water and gauze, sliding in a long open boat at night, along dark water that seemed to stretch on and on, until they rounded a curve and disappeared. In 1989, when I was trying to finish my first feature film, Antigone, Rites of Passion, I saw Michael Powell on TV's South Bank Show say, "Art is worth dying for." Those words inspired me, and helped me to complete my film. Then I wrote a poem to him that started, "A great filmmaker says: Art Is Worth Dying For," and sent it to him via Professor Bill Everson. A few weeks later I received a letter from Michael on the Archers stationery thanking me for the poem and saying that he would be most pleased to see my "Classical film." So I had the great privilege of screening Antigone for Michael. I dared to tell him (though my memory was so vague) that I thought The Tales of Hoffmann is as important for dance on film as The Red Shoes. He replied, "You must mean the Dragonfly Dance."
Finally in 1991, with Hoffmann out, on video, I could see it as an adult. I found not only Moira Shearer dancing the Dragonfly Dance, but also that I was compelled to see the film over and over - at first looking at it, then into it, each time seeing it differently, drawn deeper and deeper into its mysterious depths. I was mesmerized by a world of enchantment where marionettes become dancers, a pimp is a magician with the power to turn wax candles into jewels, and a prostitute has the power to erase a man's reflection; in which, by the trompe-l'oeil of an overhead angle, a rug painted like a staircase is an endless staircase. Powell sets up a controlled world within the film frame and then moves outside it to find another world of unknown expectations, behind what we thought we were seeing. The screen is turned into a magical, irrational visual feast that moves according to its own laws.
I now see The Tales of Hoffmann as an elaborate palimpsest, meaning encased in or layered over meaning, the deepest of them "erased." Powell, in his desire to bring all the arts together into a new cinematic whole (what he called "the composed film") and at the same time be free of the laws of realistic narrative sound cinema - free to reinvent cinema at its pre-Griffith magical roots - created a film that operates according to laws of cinematic layering. Its surface and depths are indistinguishable.
On first viewing, we respond mainly to the level of the cinematic opera - and Hoffmann was the first cinematic opera. Yet while on one level "the music is the master" (Powell Million-Dollar Movie), on another, Offenbach's music is like the wax that Helpmann's pimp/magician Dapertutto turns into diamonds, or the gauze curtains of Hein Heckroth's sets: a malleable and transparent medium, the means for resurrecting the lost magic of cinema at its origins in the 19th century - when Offenbach composed the opera. Powell transforms the opera's libretto into cinema through a language of dance, what Martin Scorsese on the Criterion laserdisc of Hoffmann calls "dance as narrative," so that character is defined not by dialogue but through a sweeping choreography of gesture and dance steps in a fluid continuity within the frame.
When Hoffmann puts on the inventor Copelius's magic glasses, their magical transformation of the world around him contains the entire visual theme of the film's first act. Through the glasses. reality becomes illusion and all manner of objects come alive, culminating with the doll Olympia herself. Copelius's ability to hook the idealistic and innocent Hoffmann into believing these illusions suggests late-19th century audiences' first experiences of magic lanterns and then cinema, and Powell calls Copelius a "maker of magical shows." Later, Giulietta's stealing of Hoffmann's reflection/soul through witchcraft evokes the fear among primitive tribes of the soul-stealing powers of photography. And at the climax of the Antonia (Act III) section, the layering of sets and optics that transforms a simple domestic scene into an inner world of ecstatic hell resembles the magic-lantern layering of one slide upon another to transform realistic daytime landscapes into magical nighttime ones. The allusions to silent cinema in Hoffmann - Powell's own silent films, German Expressionism, Disney, Melies - suggest Powell was investigating the sources of his own creative urges.
But I believe that the enduring power of the film lies in the fact that within the seduction of this Technicolor magic show and febrile dance narrative are secrets of the heart, both mythic and personal to Powell. And I believe that the clue to the most "erased" and personal meaning is found in Million-Dollar Movie. Powell talks of a series of images intended to come right before the last shot of The Tales of Hoffmann, but which was, cinematically speaking, "erased." Actress Pamela Brown, as Nicklaus, Hoffmann's faithful - male - companion (always sung by a woman in the opera), was to suddenly appear before the drunken Hoffmann after he had lost all his earthly loves, revealed as a woman naked from the waist up, her body painted with gold leaf: "My idea had been to turn the faithful Nicklaus into a golden Muse, who had accompanied him on all his adventures, without Hoffmann ever guessing who she was .... It was to be an apotheosis of Nicklaus and to explain his/her presence." The footage was shot, but Pressburger didn't like the idea and Korda felt the film was too long, and these final shots never made it into the film.
The transformation of Nicklaus and the revelation of Brown's body as art, a sensual yet otherworldly revelation of the power of art to transcend loss and death, is central to the meaning of the film. (The image is presaged in the film's first shot, a nighttime pan across city rooftops that passes a spire in the conspicuous form of a gold-painted statue of a woman. The power of the film for me is found not in Hoffmann's story but between the four Helpmann personas and the women. In each tale Powell reenacts what Jung calls "the dark man" or "the psychic predator," a figure who brings a woman to life, to own or control her, allowing her to put into power her expression, only to possess or destroy her. The theme starts artfully and playfully in the prologue, where dancer-actor Robert Helpmann (looking like a character from a German Expressionist silent film) watches his Red Shoes co-star Moira Shearer dance as if possessed, a shivering dance of triumphant ecstasy at the moment of consummation: The Dragonfly Dance. The film cuts to a tavern, and Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) begins singing. We shift from the choreographic intensity of silent film to an opera set in the 19th century. Hoffmann recalls the three loves of his life: Olympia, a life-sized doll; Giulietta, a Venetian prostitute; and Antonia, a singer. Each story becomes an act of the film - and as the Helpmann figure becomes more powerful in each tale, so the expression of the female becomes more powerfully mythic.
Act I opens with Coppelius's familiar, Spalanzano (dancer-actor Leonid Massine), entering with Olympia (Shearer) slung over his shoulder. The entrance is startling. The joyful pomp of the music, the light quicksilver of the choreography, and the frothy-happy glowing yellow of the production design are subtly undermined by the fact that Shearer is carried on, rigid, passive, immobile. In the opera, Olympia is a singing, not dancing, doll. Powell's desire to dramatize the story choreographically and to star Shearer ostensibly led to this innovation. But in doing so, he also activates a drama centered upon the female body. Powell's Olympia is animated by Coppelius to dance for Hoffmann, but has to be wound up to continue. Repeatedly the immobilized female form erupts into hyperactive performance only to collapse. During this scene we go from identifying with the character (doll) to participating in Shearer's aliveness as dancer (human). Powell shoots her always in longshot, that is, whole, so when she is suddenly torn limb from limb and decapitated by Coppelius, the effect is shocking. Except that Powell doesn't let her "die." One exquisite leg keeps moving, and as her eyes blink shut, a dissolve from the broken spring popping from her head to an image of water cinematically brings her alive again - as Giulietta, the Venetian prostitute of Act II.
Giulietta, a dark, sensuous witch, is hypnotized by her pimp, Dapertutto (Helpmann again), who becomes Protean in power, transformed into a black magician. He brings forth her own witchlike powers in order to steal Hoffmann's reflection. After a fatal duel between Hoffmann and Schlemil (Massine again) for the key to Giulietta's chambers, Giulietta undergoes a startling transformation - sudden, inexplicable, not within the ostensible narrative of the opera, but too visually specific and powerful to be a whim.
We see her alone in longshot, the black leotards she has worn throughout suddenly replaced by a white sari. Cut to: an extended, travelling closeup of her bare feet with bejewelled toes. She steps over a sculpted, rocklike mass - the frozen bodies of the men she has enchanted. Powell has transformed Giulietta into the Indian goddess of dance and destruction, Kali, whose destructive powers lead to further creation. Accordingly, the final closeup of Giulietta's face superimposed over water is both a deathlike and a sensually life-giving image. She joins Dapertutto in a gondola: he a figure of death, she his bride (her white sari suggests a wedding gown). The canal becomes the river Styx leading to Hades - the unknown darkness just outside the film frame. (Now I realize that my childhood memory is a condensation of all the shots of Dapertutto and Giulietta riding in the gondola.)
Hoffmann goes to Giulietta's room, finds her gone, and in a haunting closeup smashes the mirror with her key. By that act he regains his stolen reflection - his soul - and returns to the land of the living. At that moment Powell reveals behind him . . . Pamela Brown/Nicklaus, her eyes luminous, almost dominating the shot. Her face blurs, then disappears behind Hoffmann, merging with him, as if she were the soul he has regained.
Act III, the Antonia section, is set on a Greek island and begins in the house of Antonia's father with the romance between Hoffmann and the singer, Antonia. Domestic harmony reigns. Except that Antonia is cursed: if she exercises her greatness, if she sings, she will die.
Helpmann, this time as Dr. Miracle, "visits" Antonia in her bedroom. She lies on her bed awake, but as if having a nightmare. The curtain above her parts to reveal Dr. Miracle standing over her. She runs in terror out one door on the right of the screen, but then the camera swish-pans left and ... there she is, running back into a door on the left part of the screen - a trick shot conveying that she's controlled by supernatural forces. This sequence most clearly embodies Jung's dark-predator dream, in which the female dreamer awakens in her dream to find a dangerous man touching her. As Clarissa Pikola Estes says in her book on fairy tale, myth, and women, Women Who Run With the Wolves, "If she doesn't break away, the dark man becomes her keeper, and she his slave. If she does break away, he pursues her relentlessly." But what if the predator is Death himself? When Dr. Miracle reappears, he is dressed as the Grim Reaper.
What follows is Powell's ultimate Magic Lantern show, both ecstatic and horrific, heavenly and hellish. In a twisted yet beautiful version of the Demeter-Persephone myth, Dr. Miracle creates the illusion of bringing Antonia's dead mother back to life, luring her from the house into a visionary world of shifting, layered images that represents both Antonia's liberation and inner journey to ecstatic ruin. The house drops away to become a garden with stone steps, which in turn drops away to become an endless staircase in boundless space, then the stairs turn into an endless forest.
Dr. Miracle - or her own unconscious desire - takes her where she in her soul wants to go: onto a stage as a great singer. Miracle, a hollow-cheeked gothic horror god of Hades, wields the violin, his demonic weapon, as Antonia spins, arms up, singing gloriously, surrounded by light, by a cheering audience, literally conducted to her final notes, and to death. Hoffmann returns to find her body. Cut to: closeup of Pamela Brown/Nicklaus, the sad witness who sees the reality but can do nothing. When Powell speaks of this moment in his autobiography, he says, "I have waited until now to speak of Pamela Brown."
Pamela Brown was a great love of Powell's life in the Forties and Fifties until her early death. Since 16 she had suffered from arthritis, and was dying because she took large doses of dangerous drugs to alleviate the constant pain. The condition all but immobilized her, but although she had to exert increasingly heroic effort to do the simplest tasks, she became a major British actress. Powell writes in his autobiography of her importance to him: "Every artist has a witch, disembodied or very much bodied. And mine was Pamela Brown .... She was a cripple .... The demon sprang upon her and twisted her legs, her toes, and her fingers. For the rest of her short life, she had only two toes on her right foot to walk on .... She suffered agonies but she fought back ... at the height of her career ... every performance was a struggle with death and disaster .... Only her dresser knew how thin the line was between triumph and physical collapse." Contained in those words are the dynamics of Olympia's dance, the identity of Giulietta, and the apotheosis of Antonia's act of song at the point of death.
Allusions to Brown's situation and Powell's relationship with her are scattered throughout the film; Olympia must be wound up over and over in order to perform; Giulietta's feet are endowed with powers of destruction; the deliriously delusional world Dr. Miracle conjures around Antonia calls to mind the drugs that allowed Brown to act. Powell and Brown met on the Isle of Mull, "where the waves crashed up until it seemed that the little fisherman's cottage, built on the very edge of the tide, would dissolve and break up like a house of cards .... "Antonia's father's house with walls of curtains on the edge of the Greek island, which (in cinematic terms) dissolves echoes this.
Could Powell have done what all great artists do when making myth?: unite a deep and intolerable personal meaning with the healing power of aesthetic form, to compose it, endow it with universality? The power for Powell of the theme of a woman dying while performing her art to perfection lay not in some dated, male-centered iconography, but in the all too real tragedy and bravery he saw in Pamela Brown. And here, in contrast to The Red Shoes, the female creative spirit triumphs: as if in a miracle play the tragedy of the female body destroyed becomes the spectacle of the feminine spirit's transcendence of death.
The incredible pull of the cinematic surface down into the mythic and the personal is universalized at the end bycircling back to a cinematic language that operates simultaneously as transparent surface and hidden depth, to the palimpsest and transcending the personal myth with cinema of such beauty that I am invariably moved to tears.
After Antonia's death, Powell recalls all three past loves, each dead over Helpmann's arm. Then, in a series of closeups, Helpmann peels off mask after mask, one for each character. In revealing his "real" identity underneath, he relinquishes the power built up through the taking on of multiple identities, and his de-masking releases the women from death. They are now seen alive, dancing simultaneously in different parts of the screen, joined by a fourth figure: Moira Shearer as a white ballerina. Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia dance into the ballerina's body, dissolving into it, subsumed in white. The white ballerina in 19th century ballet was a sylph, a woman/spirit who was beyond the bounds of death. Powell then divides the frame and "splits" the white ballerina into four parts and has her dance a pas de deux with her partner from four different angles simultaneously, against the limitless black screen. The music is a recap of the gorgeous Barcarolle, the musical theme of the Venetian section.
While Helpmann's de-masking is a demonstration of cinema "black magic" - the ambiguities of lie and truth, illusion and reality, cinema's demonic power (a vision fulfilled in Peeping Tom) - the white ballerina sequence is the purest expression of the "white magic" of cinema, its power to transform matter into spirit (a key theme, surely, of the Tempest Powell dreamt of making).
And in the end, I like to think that the "erased" shots of Nicklaus/Pamela Brown as Golden Muse act as a "spirit break." The spirit break is a tiny part of the design left out of Navajo rugs, to make an empty place where the spirit can enter and bring dead matter alive as art. The Tales of Hoffmann is more alive to me than ever.
Film Comment 13th March 1995 v31:n2. p26(6)