Filmmaking is an act of optimism. Setting ideas to paper; convincing others to come and join the party; devoting time, money, blood, sweat, and tears to capture those images on celluloid; believing those images can carry meaning throughout the world; and, hopefully, that those images will last—that they will outlive you—doesn’t just require faith, it requires a downright bullish attitude. Thankfully, Michael Powell had both in spades. Just check his gravestone.
“It says, ‘Michael Powell: film director and optimist,’” says Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell, the late director’s widow and Academy Award-winning editor of Raging Bull, The Aviator, and The Departed, and at least a dozen masterworks with director Martin Scorsese.
Schoonmaker has taken up the call and is making sure her late husband’s films are not just preserved but restored to their proper glory.
“To see it come back is just one of the great thrills,” Schoonmaker says.
The Tales of Hoffmann—adapted from Jacques Offenbach’s opéra fantastique, Les contes d’Hoffmann—was written, produced, and directed by The Archers, or Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Their partnership is one of cinema’s high-water marks, and Hoffmann captures them at their most audacious. Powell had long wanted to perfect his idea of a “composed film”—a marriage of image and music that the two filmmakers had experimented with to great effect in the finale of Black Narcissus and the 14-minute ballet sequence in The Red Shoes. Hoffmann ended up being their first and only fully composed feature film.
With Hein Heckroth in charge of designs, Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and performances from the magnificent Robert Helpmann, Ludmilla Tchérina, Léonide Massine, and Moira Shearer, Hoffman is pure invention. The Archers’ acolyte George Romero calls Hoffmann “the first music video” while Scorsese states, “the whole film dances.”
“It’s stunning,” Schoonmaker says. “As we were going through [the movie] over and over and over again every day, we would discover another little beautiful detail and revel in it. It was really a labor of love: A fantastic labor of love.”
The Archers shot their song of love on three-strip Technicolor stock, which produces glorious and vibrant images, but it is sadly fragile. To make sure Hoffmann lasts, Schoonmaker and The Film Foundation worked diligently to recover the original print, digitize it and restore it for future generations of moviegoers.
“A lot of times, studios don’t have an economic incentive for restoring and preserving a film. It might just stay in a vault and not be seen by audiences,” says Margaret Bodde, executive director at The Film Foundation. “It’s important to get those films out and make them available for audiences.”
Bodde works closely with studio archives and preservation facilities to wrangle the multitude of technicians and historians it takes to restore a work to its original form. For Hoffmann, it was roughly three years.
“Tales of Hoffman was done in partnership with the Academy Archive,” Bodde says. “Mike Pogorzelski [the head of the Academy Archive] has a team of archivists, 10 or 20 archivists, that work on all the different projects that they take on.”
The Film Foundation also worked with Warner Brothers Motion Picture Imaging and various companies capable of handling the picture and sound elements needed for the restoration.
“You have to be careful to make sure you know you are doing the right thing,” Schoonmaker explains. “Michael wanted, and Hein Heckroth particularly wanted, to have each act have its own color palette—and so the yellow in the first act, and the red in Venice, and then Aegean blue in the third act. It was very important for us to try and really make sure we got that right.”
Hoffmann is a movie drunk with color. The yellows, reds, and blues pour off the screen in a way that no other director, living or dead, has managed to match.
“It was hard. It was really hard,” Schoonmaker continues. “But with a combination of different levels of contrast and all kinds of things, we finally got it right.”
“That’s truly what a restoration on the level of something like Tales of Hoffmann is,” Bodde explains. “Just going back and restoring a film to the original intent of the director.”
Thanks to their hard work, The Tales of Hoffmann has been reinstated to its proper glory. Nearly seven minutes of lost footage has been recovered and added, allowing contemporary audiences a more complete picture of Powell and Pressburger’s vision than those who saw it in 1951. Living proof of Faulkner’s infamous line from Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
“There is so much humanity in the Powell and Pressburger films,” Schoonmaker says. “You never know what’s going to happen, and their films are filmed with that. Of course, that’s why they last. Because films that are clichéd and sentimental, they don’t last. But these do!”
This article first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 23, No. 16, “In this life or the next.” Header photo: Martin Scorsese, Michael Powell, and Thelma Schoonmaker-Powell at the Museum of Modern Art. Courtesy Martin Scorsese.