The Tales of Hoffmann

Rating: 6 out of 10.

(6/10) The first German sci-fi film, this 1916 romantic tragedy is based on Jacques Offenbach’s opera and the works of E.T.A. Hoffmann. It is the first feature film involving a robot. While offering some early hints of German Expressionism, The Tales of Hoffmann is rather dully filmed. The adaptation takes a lot of punch out of the original stories, but the atmosphere is well built and the acting good. 

The Tales of Hoffmann (Hoffmanns Erzählungen), 1916, Germany. Directed by Richard Oswald. Written by Fritz Friedmann-Frederich, Richard Oswald. Based on works by E.T.A. Hoffmann and the opera of Jacques Offenbach. Starring: Erich Kaiser-Titz, Werner Krauss, Friedrich Kühne, Lupu Pick, Kurt Wolowsky, Alice Hechy, Thea Sandten, Andreas van Horn. Produced by Lothar Stark.


One of the authors that is often mentioned as an aside when discussing the early works of science fiction is E.T.A. Hoffmann (Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann), who wrote a number of highly influential short stories in a short period between 1810 and his death from syphilis in 1822, only 46 years old. More than anything, his stories impacted the opera and classical music. But echoes of his often dark and mysterious tales are heavily on display in the books of Romantic gothic authors like Mary Shelley and in particular Edgar Allan Poe, as well. His contribution to science fiction lies primarily in his perhaps most famous story, The Sandman (1816) and The Automata (1814), both revolving around a robot, or an automaton, as they were called back then.

The most famous Hoffmann-related work, however, is not even written by Hoffmann, but by German-born French composer Jacques Offenbach, and that is the opera The Tales of Hoffman, with a libretto by Jules Barbier, which had its premiere in 1881. The opera is based on three of Hoffmann’s stories, primarily The Sandman, but also The Cremona Violin and The Lost Reflection, three stories about love lost in a supernatural or mysterious way, tied together by a protagonist called Hoffmann. And it is this opera that stands as the base for the German silent film The Tales of Hoffmann from 1916, directed by Richard Oswald.

Relly Ridon as Angela and Andreas van Horn as Dr. Mirakel.

The film is divided into a prologue and three acts, with a title card presenting the actors in each act. The prologue doesn’t exist in the opera, but is instead a very condensed and partly fictionalised account of Hoffmann’s early life, intertwined with a short introduction of the film’s three main villains: Count Dapertutto, the eye-glass maker Coppelius, a Mr. Spalanzani and Dr. Mirakel. The prologues sees a young Hoffman (Kurt Wolowski) living with his aunt and uncle, but getting kicked out for drawing caricatures of the soldier Dapertutto (Werner Krauss). He then stumbles across Spalanzani (Lupu Pick) and Coppelius (Friedrich Kühne) trying to create gold by alchemy, and overhears them saying they still need some children’s eyes for the concoction. Hoffmann protests, and is chased out in the street, where he collapses from fatigue. The dancer Angela (Relly Ridon) walks by, and with the help of a friend she carries Hoffmann home to her father, Councillor Crespel (Ernst Ludwig). Dr. Mirakel (Andreas van Horn) is brought in to cure him, but also tries to make a pass at Angela. When Mirakel is denied, he sneaks in to Angela’s room and starts playing the fiddle: Angela has a strange illness, which makes her exhausted if she dances, and when Mirakel plays, she can’t refuse dancing. In his jealousy, Mirakel plays until Angela falls down dead on the floor.

Spalzani (Lupu Pick) presents a miniature Olympia to Hoffmann (Erich Kaiser-Titz).

Now we have met all the players and set up for the actual film, which contains three or four stories, starting with some more semi-autobiographical stuff, and the introduction of Councillor Lindorff (Ferdinand Bonn), who actually appears in the story The Cremona Violin in a completely different capacity. In the film he is turned into the Hoffmann’s beloved actress Stella (Kathe Oswald), creating a love triangle that forces Hoffmann on a journey.

The grown-up Hoffmann (Erich Kaiser-Titz) has two love-related adventures in his travels. In the first he is tricked by Coppelius and Spalanzani into falling in love with Olympia (Alice Hechy), a life-size automaton in the shape of a young girl. It’s all really a rather convoluted story of Coppelius wanting to take revenge on Spalanzani because Spalanzani can’t pay him for the work he did on Olympia – namely the eyes. So he gives Hoffmann a pair of extraordinary glasses, which makes him see Olympia as if she was really alive. Spalanzani jokingly passes off Olympia as his daughter at a big party, but Hoffmann, with his new glasses, takes him on his word and asks for Olympia’s hand in marriage. When the trick is revealed, Hoffmann becomes enraged and destroys the automaton, which was Coppelius’ plan all along.

Olympia (ALice Hechy) showing off her movements.

The second adventure takes us to the theatre, where Hoffmann falls in love with the beautiful Giulietta (Thea Sandten), girlfriend of the rich Schlemihl (Louis Neher), who is chaperoned at the theatre by Hoffmann’s old childhood nemesis Conte Dapertutto. Laying old feuds behind, Dapertutto invites Hoffmann to a party at Giulietta’s palace, where Hoffmann falls in love with Giulietta. When Schlemihl loses all his money at the gambling table, Giulietta gives him a sack of money to gamble with. He cleans out the table, but before he can collect, Giulietta encourages Hoffmann to fight Schlemihl for her hand. Hoffman fights and kills Schlehmihl in a sword-fight, during which Dapertutto takes his chance to stuff his pockets with Schlemihl’s money. With the rival gone, Dapertutto and Giulietta jump into a boat and sail away with the money of the dead rival, leaving Hoffmann once again tricked by his good heart.

Schlemil (Louis Neher) and Hoffmann (Erich Kaiser-Titz) battle it out over the hand of Giulietta.

In the final chapter, Hoffmann returns to his home town, only to find that old Council Crespel has a daughter called Antonia (Ressel Orla), who is just as beautiful as her mother Angela, and has indeed also inherited her mother’s strange affliction. Naturally he falls in love with her, but he has a rival – good old Dr. Mirakel, who asks for Antonia’s hand. When again refused, he grabs the violin, and dances poor Antonia to her death as well, once again cheating Hoffmann out of his love.

Unsurprisingly, the film has a strong operatic feel, perhaps too strong. One of its flaws is that Oswald and Friedmann-Frederich have omitted the flashback framework of the opera, instead telling the story as if it were a linear one. But since it isn’t, the film has an incoherent and jumpy feel. And without the emotional padding of the opera, the protagonist Hoffman becomes a flat and uninteresting character. There’s the initial problem of inserting a main character into three different stories in which he doesn’t belong in the first place. This works better in the opera, which is carried more by the bombastic emotions of individual scenes than the over-arching story. And in the opera we first meet Hoffman after the events, as a drunken, hopeless and deeply flawed character, and the retelling of his three great loves and losses functions like a road to redemption, of sorts. Without this framework the film fails to give Hoffmann any real character traits, other than a certain naivety and a stern moral fibre, which is about the most boring traits you can give a protagonist. This isn’t helped by the fact that Hoffmann is played rather smugly by Erich Kaiser-Titz. The movie might have worked better, had Oswald let the younger actor Kurt Wolowsky play the role throughout the film.

Kurt Wolowsky, the young Hoffmann.

The camera work is so-so. This was one of Richard Oswald’s first films, and it’s clear he hasn’t quite honed his craft yet. There are a few flashes of originality. One is where Hoffmann walks through the streets of Berlin, ans Oswald films him through a narrow, vertical slit of light between the old, dark and dilapidated stone houses, anticipating the gothic style of later expressionism. The only real use he makes of visual trickery is in a scene where Spalanzani shows Hoffmann a “living” miniature doll of Olympia, contained in a small box, where the actress is superimposed as a homunculus against the black backdrop of the box. But even that was an old trick used by filmmakers like Georges Méliès for over 15 years. For the most part, the movie is filmed with wide shots, often taking in large set-pieces with big crowds, as if the camera was a theatre audience. He dies use the occasional close-up or mid-shot, but only when they are necessary to show something or someone up close, and never as a proper filming technique. This over-use of the wide shot, combined with the static camera, further enhances the film’s stagy feel. Oswald gets little help from cinematographer Ernst Krohn, a prolific but undistinguished camera man and occasional director.

Erich Kaiser-Titz, grown-up Hoffmann.

It’s difficult to rate acting performances in a film this theatrical, but at least the material Oswald has to work with isn’t bad. In the beginning of the film the actors are presented, which was the standard back then, but here Oswald (or producer Lothar Stark) try go bestow some extra dignity to the movie by informing the audience about at which prestigious Berlin theatre each of the actor normally works. And all of them are stage actors, some of them quite renowned, such as Erich Kaiser-Titz. Kaiser-Titz was also one of the most prolific actors in Germany during the silent era: he made his debut in 1909 and performed in over 300 films before his untimely death in 1928. Never the most brightly shining star of the German films, The Tales of Hoffmann was probably the crowning achievement of his movie career, but he was also well known during WWI as the dapper detective Engelbert Fox, created by Richard Oswald as a German substitute for Sherlock Holmes during a period when British film heroes were, for obvious reasons, not quite in vogue. In The Tales of Hoffmann Kaiser-Titz does a fair job with the rather anonymous role. He also appeared in the 1921 film Die Insel der Verschollenen (review), the first movie adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Werner Krauss in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Another Richard Oswald staple was Werner Krauss, who does a wonderfully grumpy and expressive portrait of Conte Dapertutto, playing to full operatic volume. A legend of German silent cinema, Krauss made his first serious contribution to film in The Tales of Hoffmann. He explains that one of the reasons he got excited about cinema was the money, according to CineGraph Buch, citing his autobiography: “I had no idea who Dapertutto was. I got a contract: ‘You have three days to work and get forty marks a day.’ At that time I got maybe three hundred marks at the theatre a month, so 40 a day was a neat sum.” After filming the first scene, Oswald raised Krauss’ salary to 50 marks a day.

Werner Krauss.

Krauss became famous for his expressive and intense film acting, and soon helped define a genre along with directors like Oswald, F.W. Murnau, Paul Leni, Fritz Lang and Henrik Galeen. Oswald was one of the pioneers of the budding horror genre, and in 1916 he made the first of a series of mystery films called Das Unheimliche Haus, or The Eerie House, in which Krauss starred. “Unheimlichen” soon became the collective description of the dark, spooky films made during this era in Germany, and today we would call them “horror films”. In 1920 he got the role that he will forever be remembered for, as the title character in the genre-defining film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene and co-starring Conrad Veidt. With its dream-like surrealist sets, heavy make-up, odd camera angles and innovative use of shadow and light, the psychological horror thriller defined German expressionism. In 1924 Krauss starred in another horror movie with long-reaching ramifications, Waxworks, written by Henrik Galeen, directed by Paul Leni, and co-starring such greats as Conrad Veidt, Emil Jannings and William Dieterle. And in 1926 Krauss played the Mephistopheles-like sorcerer in Henrik Galeen’s remake of The Student of Prague, starring Veidt.

The sinister Friedrich Kühne as Coppelius.

Lupu Pick, as Spalanzazi, is good but one of the less prominent characters in the film. Pick was another Richard Oswald staple, and appered in such films as A Night of Horrors (1916) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1917). He later became a respected writer and director himself. The actor that makes perhaps the strongest impact in the film is Friedrich Kühne, playing the Severus Snape-like character of Coppelius. Kühne was already established as a villain in German cinema, and would go on playing sinister roles throughout his career. He played the foil of Sherlock Holmes in a number of movies, including the 1914 version of The Hound of Baskervilles, the first feature-length adaptation of the book, Homunculus (1916, review) by Otto Rippert, Fritz Lang’s The Spiders (1920), Judith Trachtenberg (1920), Othello (1922), The Man on the Comet (1925), Lützow’s Wild Hunt (1927) and Anna Susanna (1953).

Alice Hechy as Olympia.

The women in the film are mostly interchangeable, as was often the case in early movies, but Alice Hechy does well as the stiff automaton Olympia, and Thea Sandten is quite good in her role as the devious Giulietta.

Alice Hechy was primarily a singer, but received small films roles from 1914 on. The Tales of Hoffmann was her breakthrough, and led to a prominent stage career in the theatre and opera. She did continue to appear in films, but mostly in smaller roles. She was also featured on a number of music records.

Thea Sandten is perhaps remembered today primarily because of her tragic death. She was born Toni Ansorge in Wroclaw, Germany, today Poland, and had a prolific film career for ten years between 1912 and 1922. Her greatest successes were The Tales of Hoffmann and Otto Rippert’s Homunculus. Most of all she played tragic roles in so-called “women’s films”, or damsels in distress in minor movies. Worthy of mention are the two films she made with Deutcshe Bioscop in 1915 and 1916, Und das Wissen ist der Tod and Der Trödler von Prag. Bioscop had a huge success in 1915 with Paul Wegener’s horror/fantasy film The Golem, and these two movies were made to cash in on that same market. Both were directed by Walter Schmidthässler and starred Sandten alongside Arthur Bergen. Both lead actors died in the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz in 1943.

Schlemil (Louis Neher) pleads with Giulietta (Thea Sandten).

Very little is known about Thea Sandten’s life after 1922. We do know that after two failed marriages, she tied the knot with a Jewish man with the surname Löwenstein in 1939, perhaps the worst time in history to marry a Jewish person in Berlin. The couple lived under difficult conditions during the first years of WWII, and in 1942, along with hundreds of thousands of other Jews, communists, homosexuals, political activists, Muslims, and other groups, they were shipped off to Auschwitz. The last official record of Toni Löwenstein Sandten is her deportation to Auschwitz on December 9, 1942, and according to survivors, she was executed in January 1943.

In 1916 the German film industry was fast rising on the international film market, in close collaboration with the Danish ditto, challenging USA, France and Italy. All of Europe’s film industries suffered badly because of WWI, which gave Hollywood the chance to get the upper hand on the market. However, paradoxically enough, the German industry was perhaps the one of the majors that suffered least, mostly because of an effective nationalisation of German cinema. During the war Germany banned almost all film import. While the field was splintered and chaotic, with many small companies doing their own things, there was a huge demand for domestic films. After WWI and the forming of the Weimar Republic, almost all film industry was nationalised and put under the banner of UFA with a generous government funding, but wide artistic freedom.

The young Richard Oswald posing at the poet Schiller’s monument in Schiller Park, where some of the movie was filmed.

This artistic freedom, now with proper funding, led to a continuation of the developments that had started around 1915 with films like The Golem, The Tales of Hoffmann, The Eerie House, The Hound of Baskerville and others. While largely forgotten today, one of the pioneers of the German horror film and expressionism was Austrian writer-director Richard Oswald. His background was in theatre, but he was bit by the cinema bug in 1914 and didn’t look back. With his Sherlock Holmes productions and tales of mystery and the supernatural, movies like The Hound of Baskerville (1914), The Eerie House (1916), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1917) and A Night of Horror (1917) laid the foundation of the horror film. His best known movie is probably the classic Unheimliche Geschichten (Eerie Tales, 1919), a five-part horror anthology that served as a blueprint for the horror genre, based on five stories, by Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe, and others.

Richard Oswald.

In 1925 Oswald co-founded the movie company NERO, and became one of the most important movie producers in Weimar Germany, backing some of the greatest films of the era, like G.W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918 (1929) and Pandora’s Box (1930), as well as Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). With the rise of Nazi Germany, Jewish Oswald quickly emigrated, first via Austria to France and England and finally to the US. He only made a handful of films abroad, and passed away in 1963, when visiting Germany.

Richard Oswald was an extremely prolific director: between 1914 and 1934 he directed over 100 films, and wrote or produced almost a hundred more. As a director he has been criticised for favouring quantity over quality, and there is at least some truth in this: compared to his more renowned contemporaries, Oswald’s films rarely showed any great artistic merit. Unheimliche Geschichten is perhaps the exception to the rule: its innovative use of shadow and light, the dramatic make-up of the actors, and the facial close-ups of horror and despair did contribute greatly to the rise of the expressionistic horror film. It was greatly helped by the superb acting of horror legend Conrad Veidt, who one year later would become immortalised as the murderous somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, starred in the wonderful horror film Orlac’s Hands (1924) and the 1926 remake of The Student of Prague. In 1928 he was the star in Paul Leni’s dark romantic masterpiece The Man Who Laughs, made in Hollywood, playing Gwynplaine, one of the major influences on Batman’s The Joker, and later reinvented himself as a film noir villain in Bogart films like Casablanca and All Through the Night. Veidt and Werner Krauss were only two of a whole bunch of actors that Richard Oswald “discovered”.

Conrad Veidt (öeft) on Oswald’s 1919 film Unheimliche Geschichten.

The Tales of Hoffmann differs radically from both the opera it is based on and even more from the original stories. Without having watched the opera, one would be pretty hard-pressed to identify Hoffmann’s tales in these tales of Hoffmann. And as Bob the Caretaker writes in the blog The Devil’s Manor: “Interestingly, the tales’ fantasy elements are downplayed, a surprising approach for a director who seemed rarely to shy away from outlandish material. The Lost Reflection in particular has been shorn completely of its supernatural elements (Dapertutto’s scheme to steal Hoffman’s reflection) to become a fairly mundane story of love and betrayal.”

E.T.A. Hoffmann led a life too diverse to fit into a post like this, a true Renaissance man, he was a composer, author, music critic, caricaturist, jurist and a huge influence on 19th century literary Romanticism, and even 20th century surrealism. His own operas met with modest success, but his short stories have inspired a number of classics in both ballet, opera and music: Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is the best known, alongside The Tales of Hoffman, Coppélia and Schumann’s Kreisleriana. Close to 100 films or TV episodes have been based on his work, and as of April 2018 Dario Argento is set to direct a new interpretation of The Sandman, with Iggy Pop attached as the titular character. The opera The Tales of Hoffmann was filmed 1951 in Britain by Michael Powell, an adaptation that has been called the greatest opera film ever made.

E.T.A. Hoffmann.

Someone has said that Hoffmann waged a war against rationalism, and his stories were often dark and bizarre, blending realism with the supernatural, dream with reality, madness with reason, and many of them have a proto-Freudian psychological horror to them. In the The Tales of Hoffmann Olympia is portrayed as a very obvious wind-up automaton, and Hoffmann is fooled only because of the magical glasses provided by Coppelius. But in The Sandman Olympia is completely life-like, deceiving a whole banquet, who wonder at her cold touch and silent beauty. There’s a duality to the story, blending the characters of Coppelius, a childhood menace of the protagonist Nathanael, and Coppola, the co-inventor of Olympia, as well as Olympia and Nathanael’s fiancée Clara. In his youth Nathanael interrupts the evil alchemist Coppelius while he is “hammering out shiny masses into shapes of eye-less faces”. When he is discovered, Coppelius threatens to burn out his eyes with glowing embers.

Olympia’s mute beauty serves as a way for the immature Nathanael to project his own fantasies of women, love and sexuality, and he abandon’s his real flesh-and-blood fiancée for the automaton, and while he sees her as real, instead starts viewing Clara as an “inanimate, accursed automaton” when she refuses to feed his confused delusions. However, when Nathanael is about to as Spalanzani for “his daughter’s” hand , he interrupts Spalanzani and Coppola arguing over compensation over who made what parts of the automaton. When Nathanael sees the lifeless body of Olympia, with her eyes removed from their sockets, he goes insane, tries to kill Spalanzani and is put in an insane asylum. Despite his madness and betrayal, Clara takes him back and nurses him back to health, until one day tragedy strikes again … and I won’t provide any more spoilers.

One of the more stylish shots in Tales of Hoffmann.

Much of the point of the story is lost both in the opera adaptation and especially in the film, as is the case with the other two stories as well. In a way this is understandable, as things often had to be kept fairly simple in silent films, but still the screenplay does underestimate the intelligence of the audience somewhat. The film becomes more of a romantic tragedy.

With the emergence of German Expressionism, Weimar Germany became the leading producer of horror films, with a steady backup from Scandinavia, where directors like Benjamin Christensen, Carl Theodore Dreyer and Victor Sjöström started emerging. Quite a few of these films had some science fiction elements to them, and with the exception of a couple of ambitious Danish films, Germany became the leading sci-fi producer in the years between the wars.

Janne Wass

The Tales of Hoffmann (Hoffmanns Erzählungen), 1916, Germany. Directed by Richard Oswald. Written by Fritz Friedmann-Frederich, Richard Oswald. Based on works by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Starring: Erich Kaiser-Titz, Werner Krauss, Friedrich Kühne, Lupu Pick, Kurt Wolowsky, Alice Hechy, Thea Sandten, Andreas van Horn, Louis Neher, Ressel Orla, Kathe Oswald, Max Ruhbeck, Paula Ronay, Ernst Ludwig, Relly Ridon, Ruth Oswald, Ferdinand Bonn. Cinematography: Ernst Krohn. Art direction: Manfred Noa, Hermann Warm. Produced by Lothar Stark for Lothar Stark Film.

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