An automaton ballerina dismembered by a jealous spectacle-maker. A vampiric courtesan employed by the devil to steal souls from love-struck Venetian travelers. A consumptive beauty egged on by an evil doctor to sing herself to death. These horrific oddities, in the hands of British master Michael Powell and his Hungarian collaborator Emeric Pressburger, became the most sumptuous piece of pure cinema in postwar England, and a compendium of invention, color, and pacing that would serve as a film textbook for the next 50 years. The Tales Of Hoffmann is Powell and Pressburger's English-language version of Jacques Offenbach's light opera, and for decades after its 1951 release, it languished almost unseen, burdened by its association with high culture and by misbegotten cuts in the American version. Thanks to Martin Scorsese's '80s championing of Powell's work, Criterion produced a laserdisc using the British Film Institute's eye-popping restored three-strip Technicolor print, including a commentary track by Scorsese and film-music historian Bruce Eder. For the long-anticipated DVD release of the film, Criterion has added an interview with director George Romero, whose childhood experience seeing Hoffmann in a New York theater made him realize the medium's potential and accessibility.
Powell and Pressburger believed that living for art, while not a certain route to happiness or even contentment, was the only alternative that could compete with the destructive nationalism displayed in the two world wars. In The Red Shoes and Hoffmann, they created their most complete demonstrations of how a life suffused with art would look, sound, and move. Hoffmann's huge stages, sometimes stuffed with people, props, and colors, and sometimes gloriously empty and monochrome, become theaters of the mind where bodies, cameras, and windblown draperies dance. Meanwhile, the structure derived from the 19th-century opera prefigures postmodern puzzles of reflexivity. The author of the three tales, E.T.A. Hoffmann, becomes the oddly passive protagonist of his own phantasmagoria, losing love three times over (or four, counting the framing story). His longsuffering best friend, played by Powell favorite Pamela Brown, watches bemusedly while he deludes himself. But the pain on her face reveals that she (or he—she dresses in male attire and bears the name Nicklaus) truly loves him.
Even in these days of the movie-musical's revival, it's difficult to imagine a filmed opera being anything but staid, stiff, and tedious. But Tales of Hoffmann isn't a filmed opera—it's a film, and one of the most completely realized marriages of color, movement, and music in the medium's history. Yet its magic isn't the esoteric stuff of elitist culture, but simple in-camera effects, painted backdrops on glass, the vivid liquid dyes of Technicolor, and the vibration of human vocal cords. This is art everyone can live for. And The Tales of Hoffmann makes it possible to live completely, gloriously within it.