The Tales of Hoffmann: exclusive materials from the making of Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece

Explore Powell and Pressburger‘s marvel of colour, design and music through some of the original production materials held by the BFI‘s Special Collections.

Opening titles from The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd

The Tales of Hoffmann is one of Powell and Pressburger’s most experimental and audacious films, a riotous cinematic fantasy of Technicolor, music and dance that tells the story of poet Hoffmann’s (Robert Rounseville) three lost loves. The film itself is based on Jacques Offenbach’s final, unfinished opera, Les Contes d’Hoffmann, in turn adapted from stories by the German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann.

In some ways, Hoffmann can be seen as a companion piece to The Red Shoes (1948), made three years earlier. Both tell stories about and through dance, art, music and performance. They also share many of the same personnel, including Archers regulars designer Hein Heckroth, camera operator-cinematographer Christopher Challis, composer Brian Easdale, editor Reginald Mills, as well as Red Shoes accomplices conductor Thomas Beecham and dancers Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Leonide Massine and Ludmilla Tcherina.

Designer Hein Heckroth at work on The Tales of HoffmannPreserved by the BFI National Archive

But whereas The Red Shoes is set in a generally realistic, recognisable world with incursions into fantasy – most obviously through its central dance performance of ‘The Ballet of the Red Shoes’ – Hoffmann is a fully musical piece, an entire opera rendered through film. In this respect, it takes Michael Powell’s notion of the ‘composed film’, which fully integrates sounds and image, to its logical conclusion. Powell had first experimented with this idea in Black Narcissus (1947) and then again in The Red Shoes in sequences where the soundtrack was created first and the visuals created around this.

For Hoffmann, the whole film was shot to a pre-recorded score. This enabled Powell and Pressburger to re-cast the opera (largely) in dance terms, with many of the singing parts being taken by dancers. It also meant that Powell could shoot the film as a silent film, utilising a range of camera movement and tricks, and taking over the large silent stage at Shepperton where designer Hein Heckroth designed imaginative and spectacular sets.

Heckroth is a key member of the Archers team and was central to their visual style of filmmaking. He’d won an Oscar for his work on The Red Shoes but The Tales of Hoffmann pushed him even further as he created the fantastical worlds that the poet and his muses inhabit (he was Oscar nominated for both colour Art Direction and Costume Design for The Tales of Hoffmann). Heckroth conceived that each act should be designed around a dominant colour to suit its subject matter, setting and tone. With this as his guiding principle, he produced distinct settings for each act, all of which utilise gauzes, painted backdrops and cinematic visual tricks to confuse and conflate fantasy and reality.

Working closely with Heckroth was sketch artist Ivor Beddoes. Beddoes had worked with Heckroth and the Archers since Black Narcissus. As well as holding a large collection of Heckroth’s designs, the BFI National Archive also holds Ivor Beddoes’ film-related archive of drawings, designs and sketchbooks, notes and research material, all of which offer fascinating insight into the highly creative process of designing for all aspects of the Archers’ visually spectacular films.

Before the opera proper begins, we are introduced to Hoffmann and his current love, Stella (Moira Shearer), a ballerina, who is dancing in ‘The Ballet of the Enchanted Dragonfly’. This scene was created for the film to give the opportunity to showcase the talents of Shearer, who plays both Stella in the prologue/epilogue and Olympia in Act I.  The dance itself is beautifully choreographed by Frederick Ashton, and strikingly designed by Heckroth.

Stella (Moira Shearer) dances in ‘The Ballet of the Enchanted Dragonfly’STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd

Beddoes’ archive includes designs that were produced for the programme, as well as designs for other paper props such as the cover for the musical score (‘Heart of Mine’) from which Hoffmann and Antonia sing in Act III.

Design for programme for ‘The Enchanted Dragonfly Ballet’, Ivor Beddoes Collection
Preserved by the BFI National Archive

We move from the ethereal yet murderous ballet to a more earthy setting – the tavern in which Hoffmann is urged to drink and recount his tales of love and loss. The first act tells the story of Olympia (also played by Shearer), an automaton who Hoffmann believes to be alive after donning a pair of magic spectacles. In Heckroth’s schema, this tale of ‘puppets, automatons and puppet guests’ is sunshine-infused youthful yellow.

Moira Shearer as automaton OlympiaSTUDIOCANAL Films Ltd

Act II takes on a darker tone as Hoffmann falls for Venetian courtesan, Giulietta (Ludmilla Tcherina). The dominant colours here are red, green and black. The production design incorporates sinister details such those in this design which shows Giulietta treading over the soulless remains of her previous conquests.

Dappertutto (Robert Helpmann) and Giulietta (Ludmilla Tcherina) plot against Hoffmann in Act II STUDIOCANAL Films Ltd
Design showing Giulietta walking across the bodies of her previous victimsPreserved by the BFI National Archive

Hoffmann survives to move on to his next and most tragic love, that of Antonia (Ann Ayars), a consumptive opera singer. Antonia lives on a Greek island with her composer father and the haunting memory of her dead mother, who was also a singer. Antonia has been forbidden to sing, for fear that it could kill her. Act III begins in classical blue but again we are soon drawn into an eerie fantasy world of the dead. In this sequence of designs by Heckroth, Antonia is lured to sing by the supposed spirit of her dead mother.

Hein Heckroth’s designs for Act III as a statue of Antonia’s mother comes to life and lures her to sing once more.Preserved by the BFI National Archive
Hein Heckroth’s designs for Act III as a statue of Antonia’s mother comes to life and lures her to sing once more.Preserved by the BFI National Archive
Hein Heckroth’s designs for Act III as a statue of Antonia’s mother comes to life and lures her to sing once more.Preserved by the BFI National Archive

The closeness of the designs to the finished film demonstrates just how closely Heckroth shaped the visual look of the film.

Act III has the most troubled history of the different sequences of The Tales of Hoffmann. Alexander Korda, the film’s producer, wanted the sequence removed, believing the film would be more marketable without it. Although Powell and Pressburger argued to keep it, Act III was severely cut for the film’s American release.
The film was actually subject to edits across its length. In this letter written by Powell to Pressburger, Powell outlines the proposed cuts, describing them as ‘simply a practical necessity’ to bring the film down to around the two hour mark. The Antonia sequence is highlighted as “the big cut”, and while recognising the cuts as a necessary requirement for commercial release, Powell also suggests that the partners should have “Reggie [Mills, editor] assemble, with Technicolor’s help, one complete print for our own files so that in a few year’s time we can show our pals “Hoffmann” as we first dreamed it up”.

Letter from Michael Powell to Emeric Pressburger, Emeric Pressburger papers. Reproduced courtesy Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell
Preserved by the BFI National Archive

When unseen footage from Act III was found, Powell’s written wish to be able to show his friends the original vision of Hoffmann helped to influence the decision to reintegrate it. This added footage heightens the sense of peril to Antonia and pulls us further into her tragedy. Rounseville and Ann Ayars were the only singers to perform on-screen and the restoration also features a newly discovered sequence at the end, allowing the unseen singers to finally receive the applause that is their due.

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