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Schoonmaker, Scorsese on Powell and Pressburger’s ‘Tales of Hoffmann’

Scorsese’s longtime editor introduces the seminal Powell and Pressburger title in Lyon

This week, Camerimage film festival presents a retrospective of the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Last month at the Lumière Festival, Thelma Schoonmaker, the three-time Oscar winning editor and Powell’s widow, spoke about “The Tales of Hoffmann,” Powell and Pressburger’s 1951 adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s opera, which is one of the films screening at Camerimage.

Martin Scorsese has influenced generations of new filmmakers. But who and what films influenced Scorsese? One front-runner: “The Tales of Hoffmann,” Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1951 adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s opera, which liberated the duo from the constraints of early 1950s’ sound cinema.

In a video presentation made for and screened at the Lyon Lumière Festival in October, Scorsese admitted that he became “rather obsessed” by the movie.

That could be an understatement. Attending Lyon, Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s three-time Oscar winning editor and Powell’s widow, took a captivated audience through the film, shot in only 17 days, its singularity and huge impact on not only Scorsese but also George Romero. Cecil B. DeMille was another large admirer. Bertrand Tavernier pointed to “Blade Runner” as just one movie that channeled “Tales.”

Starring Robert Rounseville as Hoffmann, Moira Shaerer in a double act- an automated doll Olympia and Hoffmann’s current love Stella, a dancer – plus the bolt-eyed Robert Helpmann and French dancer Leonide Massine, and featuring only dance and operatic song whose singers are identified in a credit roll reveal, “Tales of Hoffmann” was “written as a silent film,” Schoonmaker said.

Thomas Beecham recorded the score. It was then played over loudspeakers in a big silent film stage. “That left Powell and Pressburger the freedom to do anything they wanted because they didn’t have to worry about sound,” Schoonmaker explained.

She added: “My husband, Michael Powell, and the cameramen all felt free as in the silent days. A Technicolor camera was huge, with three strips of film running through it, because they needed a blimp to cover the sound. On this movie they could take it off, and the camera could fly!

“The camera is dancing to the music.”

Restoring the movie, she came to understand why Scorsese was so obsessed by the movie.

“When we were cutting ‘Raging Bull,’ Martin Scorsese was watching ‘The Films of Hoffmann’ on a 16mmm print over and over and over again. Finally, his assistant came in and said: ‘The Museum of Modern Art needs the print back.’”

‘Why?’ He was very angry. They said somebody else wants to see it. ‘Who?’ ‘George Romero, who made ‘Night of the Living Dead.’”

Schoonmaker went on: “Romero is as obsessed with this movie as is Martin. I can see why. The use of mostly dancers instead of opera singers – there are some opera singers but most parts are played by dancers – and the dramatic body-language and the brilliant filmmaking.”

Actor Robert Helpmann’s incredible, bolting eyes was “a direct influence on Robert De Niro in ‘Taxi Driver’ in the cab looking in the mirror: His eyes are spaced very much like that.”

“So this film is in Martin Scorsese’s DNA,” she concluded to appreciative applause.

Scorsese, whose Film Foundation played a key part in the film’s restoration, told the Lyon audience, “ ‘Tales’ was very special to me. I became kind of obsessed and entranced by the picture. ‘Red Shoes’ was full of music and dance. ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ was music and dance. The music and choreography are both the dancers and the camera, which told the story, and this is something that stayed with me in my work over the years, in all my films the choreography of the camera played to the music and how the two are combined, complementary to each other.”

He went on: “This painstaking restoration, supervised by my friend and collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker has been a longtime coming, and I think you’ll see it is worth every minute.”

“The Tales of Hoffmann” was indeed watched by an entranced audience in Lyon. If it weren’t for the music, you could have heard a pin drop in the house.

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