By Victor Bruno
Thanks to Martin Scorsese and his Film Foundation, BFI National Archive and StudioCanal we finally will be able to watch the Archers’ The Tales of Hoffmann in decent resolution and living colors. It is a pity, of course, that the initiative to restore and maintain Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s legacy of work again came from Martin Scorsese (and he, once again, with maximum sense of opportunism, takes the crown and label of “Mr. Film History”). The youngsters, since the situation is this, will regrettably know Powell & Pressburger’s name —but specially Powell’s name—due to Martin Scorsese’s fetishism. And so they will hear that sad and misleading rigmarole of “When I was a kid my father used to take me to the movies and the use of the colors and music strike me in Powell’s pictures”.
Colors and music. Well, Scorsese is at one point: music is an important component in the films of Michael Powell. Not only in The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann. What The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp would be without the aria “Je Suis Titania” from Mignon? What about Gone to Earth and A Canterbury Tale without the recurring motif of English folk songs? Music in his films is just about everything—art in general in the universe of Michael Powell is not an exhilarating thing: it haunts the spirit of his characters, it crushes their souls and turn out to be an obsessive thing. The curse of feeling anything—love, hate, anger, fear, sadness, happiness—is the greatest villain in a Michael Powell picture. And it can corrupt the mind of anyone. Anton Walbrook’s Boris Lermontov is a shining example of someone who let his feelings and desires corrupt his soul and ended up as an automaton. A blind man; a man numbed by music (and of course, the movements of the ballerinas). Mark Lewis from Peeping Tom is another case of someone corrupted by his feelings: in his case it is the feeling of fear.
As of colors, I am not so sure. It is known that the most known works from Powell were filmed in color and to say that something is “A Production of The Archers — London, England” is to say “Technicolor”. But sometimes we get the wrong perception that they use Technicolor as a hallucinating device, and this is misleading (and this mistaken perception on color is extended to others filmmakers as well; the most evident case is Douglas Sirk, but we’ll have another opportunity to talk about him). The colors in the work of Michael Powell are not always sparking clear and vivid. In many cases, they are muted, dark, and devilish. Take for example the sequence when Candy discovers the war is over in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: we get first a wide shot of a battlefield (shot in a studio) primarily composed in brown hues. Then we see the Candy’s car, also in tan and brown colors. But an element stands apart of this brownish world: a tiny deep blue flag. In this case, Powell uses color as a device to call our attention to this destroyed alien world: the battlefield is such a lonely and broken place that any color stands out (and can be usurped by the fog of the war).
“But,” one may say, “The Tales of Hoffmann are all about colors and music! It is set in a hallucinatory world!” Yes, my dear, it is set in a hallucinatory world and it is all about music, but not about colors. It is about music and dance. The Tales of Hoffmann are a masterpiece of the representation of feelings. You don’t notice it while you’re watching the film, but you can taste it. The music is not pleasant—it is infernal, it hurts the ear, because it is E.T.A. Hoffmann opening his heart and showing us the wounds that mistaken loves and sad affairs gave him. It is a film in which the character is constantly being betrayed and deceived. Not always by his lovers, but by the influence the demoniac character Robert Helpmann plays—a Mephistopheles-like figure, that lives to destroy any resemblance of love Hoffmann has.
But then why Powell shot this film in color if it isn’t living color? Why not in black and white? It would be cheaper and faster! Because if it weren’t in color, we could not see the yellows, greens, blues, and purples. We wouldn’t see the beauty that surrounds and crushes Hoffmann’s souls. It is a device—we can see, but the colors being muted, we can see also the haunting figure that tries to crush Hoffmann’s will. The hero—being blind by love—can see the beauty but can’t see nor understand why he can’t have his object of desire.
The Tales of Hoffmann has many shades and facets underneath its façade. The androgynous figure of Nicklaus was played by Pamela Brown, one of the millions of affairs Michael Powell had in his time. Pamela died of cancer and lived the rest of his short life in deep pain. The pain of his disease and pains on her back. Sometimes she had to perform under the effect of powerful analgesics so she could walk and talk. It is almost a synopsis of many a Michael Powell pictures: to give up pleasure and to die for art. And, since she died living with the director, it is almost the synopsis of this film: Powell could have her, but she could not, as the protagonist of Bob Dylan’s “Isis”, hold on to him very long.
The new Blu-ray of The Tales of Hoffmann will be available for purchase in March 25, 2015.