Monsoon-A-Day ‘The Tales Of Hoffmann’ (1951)

Welcome to Monsoon-a-day.

Where I watch and review a movie a day. Or whenever I fucking feel like it.

Day 90


Everyone who dabbles in film criticism– whether it be on the professional to the armchair level–has their own set of words or phrases they love to repeat and their own words and phrases they loathe to the degree of avoidance. Many critics avoid hyperbolic statements like “greatest of all time” or “game changer” like the plague, while others embrace the simplistic shorthand those phrases provide.

There’s about a million descriptive words and phrases in the English language and even the most staunch anti-superlative using critic would have a hard time not using at least half of them in describing The Tales of Hoffmann. 

Directed by partners Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Tales of Hoffmann is a shotgun blast to the senses. Equal parts Grand Opera and royal ballet (with a teensy bit of grand guignol thrown in), the film redefines the term “pure cinema.”

The film is based on composer Jacques Offenbach’s final opera from 1881 (which was, in turn, based on three stories by the German Romantic author E.T.A. Hoffmann) and details the past loves of a melancholy poet. Each love more fantastical than the last and all ending inevitably in tragedy.

Unlike most features, which have the music written last, Powell started from the end and worked backwards. Recording the score by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra first allowed the directors and performers an unprecedented amount of freedom. Since syncing up the sound was no longer a concern, the dancing, lip-syncing and sets melded perfectly into a seamless immersion.

Martin Scorsese once observed, “‘The Red Shoes’ is filled with music and dance. ‘The Tales of Hoffmann’ IS music and dance.” And so it is but what is music and dance without the proper canvas, the proper stage?

The best theater directors realize that people choose the theater over cinema because it offers something cinema or television never can. Theater can offer the greatest dancers and the most amazing opera singers but no matter how great the production is, it can’t change the dimensions of the play. What you see will always be confined to that stage. Cinema can do anything. It can point that camera anywhere and create the most set pieces.

I don’t believe there has ever been a film with better production design and if there is, I have yet to see it. There’s an otherworldly, phantasmagorical design to everything. From the make up effects to the sets, to its radiant three strip Technicolor, every element looks like it was lifted from a dream.

This film is a celebration of film, of art, of dance, of opera and of love. The phrase “they don’t make films like this anymore” is woefully inadequate because frankly, they never did.