DirectorMichael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Release Date(s)1951 (June 7, 2022)
Studio(s)London Films/The Archers (Criterion – Spine #317)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: A-
Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann is considered by many to be their last great collaboration together, though they went on to make several more films. The Red Shoes showcased their talents at capturing ballet on film within a dramatic framework, but their cinematic interpretation of the titular opera is one of the most beautiful films ever made because of how magnificently it blends narrative with music and song. It’s not just that the film is so lavishly composed, but that it’s rapturous in its ability to tell stories visually, flowing in and out of each one almost effortlessly.
The film begins with a performance of The Ballet of the Enchanted Butterfly by the ballerina Stella (Moira Shearer). When the intermission arrives, Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) leaves the audience and goes to the local tavern to regale enthusiastic patrons with mysterious yet capricious tales of love when his rival, Lindorf (Robert Helpmann), arrives soon thereafter. Hoffmann tells of the beautiful Olympia, a beautiful, dancing mechanical doll that he initially believes to be real; Giuletta, a mesmerizing but deceitful woman under the influence of an evil magician who wishes to rob him of his reflection; and Antonia, a tragic yet lovely soprano who must not sing due to a deadly illness, but is coerced into doing so by the monstrous Dr. Miracle. Music, song, and dance tell these various stories under the pen of composer Jacques Offenbach and the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham, through the talents of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Powell and Pressburger (known collectively as the Archers) were obviously inspired by the works of Walt Disney and The Tales of Hoffmann, in many ways, is equivalent to a live action version of Fantasia. Look no further than Shearer in the opening ballet number, moving from one lily pad to the next in an almost impressionistic environment. The main three performers—Shearer, Rounseville, and Helpmann—play the various roles in each story with deft precision. Interestingly, the film not only focuses on the light, but the dark as well, exploring the depths of the soul in all of its complexities, which is partly why its appeal has been so broad over the years. Whimsical, well-crafted, and exquisite to behold, The Tales of Hoffmann is almost in a class all its own.
The Tales of Hoffmann was shot by cinematographer Christopher Challis on 35 mm film using three-strip Technicolor cameras (only four of which were ever produced for use in Britain) with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The Criterion Collection presents a 4K digital restoration of the film from 2014, which was performed by The Film Foundation and the BFI National Archive, in association with StudioCanal. Sources for this restoration include the original 35 mm nitrate three-strip Technicolor negatives and, for previously deleted sequences that have been reinserted back into the body of the film, 35 mm separation master positives. Color references included a 35 mm nitrate dye-transfer print and a 35 mm safety print made from the British Film Institute’s 1985 photochemical restoration of the film. Little need be said other than this is a gorgeous presentation, easily besting its DVD counterpart. The palette is much richer with a vast variety of hues in the sets and costumes, and contrast is virtually perfect. It also appears clean and stable with a high encode and a moderate grain structure. Blacks are deep with excellent shadow detail as well. The only drawback is that the original theatrical version of the film isn’t available here, at least for completists sake, but the presentation itself is absolutely delightful, and could only be improved by 4K.
Audio is included in English mono LPCM with optional subtitles in English SDH. The subtleties of the musical score are well-represented while the vocal performances are exceedingly robust. It’s a narrow track, but otherwise clean. The volume of the track seems a bit too quiet, but a quick adjustment will take care of that.
The Tales of Hoffmann on Blu-ray sits in a clear amaray case with an insert featuring the original theatrical artwork and an accordion-style insert booklet containing cast and crew information, the essay Tales from the Lives of Marionettes by Ian Christie, restoration information, and a set of production credits. This booklet also features artwork from a British poster for the film on the cover. The following extras are included on the disc:
- Audio Commentary with Martin Scorsese and Bruce Eder
- Interview with George A. Romero (SD – 18:02)
- Stills Gallery (HD – 39 in all)
- Posters Gallery (HD – 5 in all)
- Hein Heckroth Gallery (HD – 38 in all)
- The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Upscaled SD – 13:33)
- Trailer (HD – 3:02)
The audio commentary with journalist and film writer Bruce Eder and director Martin Scorsese was originally recorded in 1992 for the Criterion LaserDisc release of the film. It’s excellent as Scorsese takes us through the film, pointing out many of his favorite moments, and examining the construction of it in terms of the way that it’s framed and photographed. Eder interjects with factual information about the film, its cast, and its crew. It’s worth noting that the commentary has also been expanded upon by Eder to cover the newly-added footage. The interview with George A. Romero was recorded in 2005 and features the filmmaker discussing his deep love for the film since his childhood. The Stills Gallery and Poster Gallery contain a total of 44 images with text descriptions for each. The Hein Heckroth Gallery contains a total of 38 stills of the artist’s design sketches and paintings for the film. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a 1955 short musical film directed by Michael Powell in Germany with designs by Hein Heckroth. It’s in poor shape, but it’s nice to have retained it from the previous DVD release as it’s very much in the same vein as The Tales of Hoffmann. Unfortunately, the extras from the StudioCanal Region B Blu-ray release—an introduction by Martin Scorsese and an interview with Thelma Schoomaker—have not been included. Also absent is the remainder of the missing footage from the pre-release version of the film, which purportedly survives in 16 mm form.
Words cannot do justice to epic beauty and cinematic mastery of The Tales of Hoffmann. It’s a true work of art that deserves repeated viewings. After falling out of print for several years, Criterion returns to fully improve upon its LaserDisc and DVD releases with a jaw-dropping presentation, though one can’t help but hope for a 4K Ultra HD release in the future.
- Tim Salmons