Restored ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ ready to entice (or divide) a new generation of filmgoers

SHARE Restored ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ ready to entice (or divide) a new generation of filmgoers
SHARE Restored ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ ready to entice (or divide) a new generation of filmgoers

BY PATRICK Z. MCGAVIN | FOR THE SUN-TIMES

On April 4, 1951, the New York premiere of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s visually lush “The Tales of Hoffmann” yielded a highly contentious response, dividing those who swooned at the imagery and others confused by the experimental aspects of the production.

Shot in a little over two weeks on British soundstages, the movie adapted French composer Jacques Offenbach’s opera and consisted of a prologue and three chapters, with each episode meditating on the nature of love, obsession and loss.

The filmmakers primarily deployed dancers, such as Moira Shearer, star of their 1947 “Red Shoes,” and Ludmilla Tcherina, who lip-synched the score by Thomas Beecham. Only Robert Rounseville and Ann Ayars sang their parts. Photographed by Christopher Callis and designed by Hein Heckroth, the movie contained not a word of spoken dialogue.

“It was shot like a silent film, and they just went nuts,” said Thelma Schoonmaker, Powell’s widow who helped supervised the new 4K digital restoration of the film that opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. “Because they didn’t have to worry about sound, they just moved the camera like they do today.”

Schoomaker is a major filmmaker in her own right, having won three Academy Awards as editor ofMartin Scorsese’s films. Scorsese has long championed the works of the master visualist Powell (1905-1990) and his key collaborator, the Hungarian-born screenwriter and producer Pressburger (1902-1988).

Moira Shearer in the 1951 film “The Tales of Hoffmann.” | Courtesy: Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal

Moira Shearer in the 1951 film “The Tales of Hoffmann.” | Courtesy: Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal

Scorsese’s Film Foundation, the National Archive of the British Film Institute and the French concern Studiocanal collaborated on the painstaking restoration of “Hoffmann.” Schoonmaker said they were surprised at the condition of the original surviving materials, the 35mm Technicolor three-strip camera negative and the 35mm soundtrack.

Each restoration is an act of recovery. The most fruitful discovery was nearly 14 minutes of deleted materials, a crucial six-minute piece during the third act, and an epilogue in the final credits that visually linked the actors and dancers with the professional singers who voiced their parts.

In addition to removing the clicks from the soundtrack and dirt and debris from the negative, the restoration emphasizes the detailed visual design and the filmmakers’ highly expressive use of yellow, red and blue to stylistically differentiate each chapter. “That was the most arduous part, going in and literally rebuilding it visually layer by layer,” Schoonmaker said.

The film was a financial disappointment, yet it has endured. “Toward the end of his life Michael said that this was probably the most imaginative film he ever made,” she said.

Patrick Z. McGavin is a local freelance writer.

“The Tales of Hoffmann” opens April 10 at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport. Visit musicboxtheatre.com for screening times and more information.

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