Gothic Riots: The Work of Hein Heckroth

The following essay was originally written for Criterion’s website in 2005, on the occasion of the DVD release of Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann. We have posted it here to coincide with BFI Southbank’s ongoing  Hein Heckroth exhibition  (which began on November 26), which puts on display the art Heckroth made for the film The Red Shoes, including 130 oil paintings.

Halfway through The Red Shoes—Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s enduring 1948 backstage ballet film—something remarkable happens. Up until that point, the film has displayed certain escapist elements: crisply designed sets for smart London apartments have secured us among an artistic and social elite; beautiful location footage of the French Riviera has provided a “come hither” travelogue appeal. But when the film’s heroine, Vicky (Moira Shearer), starts to dance the ballet of “The Red Shoes,” we leave behind this concrete story-world and enter the surreal realm of her imagination. Here, freed of the slavish need to re-create a recognizably “real” space, the film’s visionary production designer, Hein Heckroth, strikes out into a hallucinatory landscape, a world of the unconscious, creating flamboyant, cartoon-like images, dreamy and unnerving, for the film’s rightly celebrated central sequence.

The Red Shoes was the first feature film designed by the German-born painter and theater designer Heckroth, and he was awarded an Oscar for his efforts. For several years hence, Heckroth would continue to work with the writer-producer-director team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, forming one of the most fruitful, if under-recognized, filmmaker/designer collaborations in the history of cinema. Powell and Pressburger were always prone to cinematic flair, paying little heed to the fashion for modest realism in British cinema of the mid-century, and Heckroth’s often flamboyant approach suited their visions perfectly. With imaginations ignited by the success of The Red Shoes, Powell, Pressburger, and Heckroth went on to make The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), an opera film that banishes reality altogether. One of the Archers’ greatest achievements, The Tales of Hoffmann is one of the most striking instances of a painter’s art being fully incorporated into mainstream film language.

The style of Hoffmann is gaudy, sometimes gorgeous, with its cellophane kitsch, sensual gauzes, drapes and curtains, papier-mâché objects, expressive use of color, loosely painted flats, and Disney-esque sense of the fantastic. To start to explain this mad diversity—so unlike the work of any other art director—we need to look at the culture from which Heckroth emerged, and to understand why Powell and Pressburger took to him so enthusiastically. The simple fact is that Powell and Pressburger wanted to tap into the cosmopolitan art world Heckroth belonged to, and they were delighted to find a designer who could translate surreal painterliness and spectacular theatricality into something else—something uniquely cinematic.

“My ambition was to be a painter,” Heckroth wrote in 1951. “I did everything a young painter has to do: the usual exercises and maneuvers round the Mediterranean, and dutifully I went through my ‘hard time’ in Paris.” Despite his wry take on the bohemian life, it is important to note how much a part of that world the young Heckroth was. He trained as a painter in Frankfurt and developed his own eclectic style. He had connections to the expressionist Otto Dix, and to Max Ernst, the surrealist, and, as Nanette Aldred has remarked, Heckroth fused his own modernist understanding of cubism with experiments in both the surreal and the expressionist. But it was the theater that offered him the living he needed. Aged only twenty-three, he started designing sets and costumes for Kurt Joos’s experimental dance company, with which he had a successful career through to the mid 1930s, developing a decidedly modern, antirealist mise-en-scène. Instead of re-creating representations of reality onstage, he worked to express drama through shape, form, and color, and he used shifting light to instill a sense of fluidity. Decorative painting was central to his art, and he never lost his sardonic sense of humor, his taste for visual puns, or his caricaturist’s eye for satirical exaggeration.

Heckroth’s politics inclined toward Marxism, and his wife, Ada, was Jewish. Predictably, he was blacklisted by the Nazi state, but he was able to move to Britain with Ada in 1935 (she had left Germany for Paris with their daughter a few years earlier). In Britain, his theater career continued: there was work in opera and with the International Ballet Company; there were designs for Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht’s operetta A Kingdom for a Cow; his surrealist paintings were getting noticed, too. But the outbreak of war in 1939 brought a traumatic disruption: Heckroth fell afoul of internment laws, and the British government transplanted him to Australia as an “enemy alien.” He had his champions, though. Herbert Read, who had promoted the surrealist movement in Britain, campaigned for his release, as did the left-wing journalist Michael Foot. He was eventually freed from internment, and Read subsequently helped arrange an exhibition of his paintings in May 1943. Then, with the help and encouragement of fellow emigré painter-designer Zoltan Korda (brother of the legendary producer Alexander), Heckroth’s career in film began. He was employed as the costume designer for Caesar and Cleopatra (Gabriel Pascal, 1945) and was soon working at Pinewood Studios, where his association with Powell and Pressburger was launched.

Examining Heckroth’s catalog of paintings and his theater work reveals a style that anticipates his achievements in films like The Tales of Hoffmann. Lively brushstrokes infuse his paintings with a sense of movement; his use of fluid lighting effects onstage are cinematic (1943 saw him experiment with rear-projected film footage for a London stage production of War and Peace). These suggest that Heckroth was interested in a sense of metamorphosis, in things changing in time and in space, so cinema seemed the logical place for him. He was attracted to the medium because it animated his studio sets and transformed their appearance, as the camera moved through them, as rays of light played over them, as actors and dancers inhabited the spaces fashioned by them, and as footage of them was edited to offer different points of view. It may well be that Heckroth’s plastic, tangible designs, arranged before the camera, were his own finished products, but it is crucial to understand that he saw them as ingredients that, once completed, would take their place in a productive process that brought them to life. The creative input during filmmaking is not simply the director’s, nor is it the cinematographer’s, nor the actors’. It is a fusion of all these crafts. This was the governing ethos of Powell and Pressburger’s production company, the Archers, and Heckroth fully subscribed to it. He was keen to work with the cameraman and director to generate the final film.

Michael Powell saw Heckroth as a painter first and foremost, and he elevated him to production designer in order to move his company aesthetic even further away from realism and toward a yet more experimental exploration of imaginative, fantasy cinema. Heckroth had overseen the costumes for the Archers’ earlier films A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and Black Narcissus (1947). Neither film is “realist,” but their more fantastical elements still take place on and around materially solid sets. The Archers’ next release, The Red Shoes, was to contain something very different, and it needed the newly promoted Heckroth’s signature style to create it: the fantasy ballet of “The Red Shoes.” “[O]ur major preoccupation has been to get the architect, with his naturalistic conceptions, out of color films; and to get the painter in,” Powell wrote at the time, “to achieve a looser, freer, more impressionistic, and more colorful design, instead of a colored black-and-white film.” The wildly successful formal experiments in the ballet of The Red Shoes led to the decision, prompted by conductor Thomas Beecham, to film Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann.

Michael Powell had always been artistically ambitious. Since 1939, he and Emeric Pressburger had worked together to extend their craft, making atmospheric, quirky films that fulfilled the propaganda imperatives of wartime British cinema but that also explored the visual and narrative possibilities of cinema as a medium. In the postwar period, their reputations were high and their company held a central position in the British film industry. Freed of the need to harness their energies to the national propagandizing mission, and with an enviable degree of creative freedom through their arrangements with J. Arthur Rank, Powell began to aspire to his cinematic ideal—the so-called composed film. By this he meant, technically, a form of filmmaking in which a music track is recorded first and footage is then shot to marry with it, with shots timed to the second to coincide with the governing musical line. Yet the term suggests a more general meaning, equally cherished by Powell, for he saw in this form of filmmaking possibilities to orchestrate all aspects of film—color, lighting, sets, costume, music, camera work, drama—toward a single expressive end. At this stage in his career, Powell was interested most in the form of film, and was unconstrained by the need to represent the world realistically. The fantastic register of A Matter of Life and Death (1946) was, perhaps, the starting point on this journey, followed by the decision to make Black Narcissus almost entirely in a highly controlled studio setting. The freely surreal ballet sequence in The Red Shoes pushed things further, but it was Hoffmann that gave the Archers the opportunity to construct an entirely “composed” film, banishing “reality” and taking flight into Heckroth’s visionary world completely. And this is not just an aesthetic preference. It is also a statement about the condition of British filmmaking in the mid-years of the twentieth century, dominated as it was by what, for Powell, was an impoverished form of staid realism and a middle-class fixation on propriety. Powell saw himself as a cosmopolitan European, fascinated by Britishness but determined not to be hamstrung by it. Hein Heckroth, with his artistic credentials, was one of his strongest links to a genuinely continental culture, and it was he who helped the director realize his most flamboyant style.

For The Tales of Hoffmann, a variety of settings were contained within a large cyclorama stretching halfway round the studio. Simple rules of color are obeyed, as each of the three acts features one dominant tone. Act 1 is “set” in Paris, but, as Heckroth declared, “The action . . . takes places in yellow.” Color is all that is needed: the feel of the tale, its entire mise-en-scène, is reduced to its one governing color. The design, in fact, is quite minimal. Olympia’s circular room has muslin walls and a swinging bed. That is all. Venice is suggested in act 2, where the color is mauve-purple, and where Ludmilla Tcherina looks threateningly gorgeous, and for act 3, classical features dominate and the effect is of greater realism, blues and whites giving the tale an Attic feel. In the interviews Heckroth and Powell gave around the release of Hoffmann, they repeatedly speak about using color symbolically: “With proper colors, you hardly need words,” they say, with Heckroth adding, “I like to use them as a musician uses a melody. Every mood and emotion has its shade.”

Time and again in Hoffmann, there are delightful visual tricks and clever trompe l’oeil effects, and Heckroth’s designs play a key role in this visual wit. At one stage, we see a sweeping staircase rolled out on the horizontal studio floor for Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) and Antonia (Moira Shearer) to dance down. A low-angled overhead camera plays with our sense of perspective to make the staircase’s descent seem real, but it is a trick of the eye. Since the theme of the opera is Hoffmann’s faulty vision, duped as he is by love, these visual deceptions are apt, and they also cause us to reflect on the power of cinematic illusions themselves. It is a very carefully poised sense of cinematic spectacle, somewhere between belief and disbelief. It parades its artificiality, making us ask, “How did they do that?” As spectators, we have to play our part to sustain the illusion.

The Tales of Hoffmann was boldly experimental fare for commercial cinema at the time, and, upon its release, film critics accused it of being too clever for its own good. This sort of accusation had been thrown at Powell before. Milton Shulman found the gaudiness hard to swallow. Hoffmann, he wrote, was like “sitting on a whirling roundabout, sucking on a sherbet stick.” Overall, reviewers rejected the film because, even if they admired its defiance of convention—and it certainly flies in the face of postwar British austerity—it offered no escape at all from Heckroth’s sugary world. Others were critical because the style was excessive, and inconsistent at that. It lacked the purer vision of any one aesthetic style, and so it seemed messy. Hoffmann is the gothic run riot, magnificently so, and it is not surprising that middle-class 1950s British critics would find it vulgar. To the classicist, the gothic is vulgar. But, if there is a taint of kitsch in the look of Hoffmann, can’t we read that positively, as a visual statement about the tawdry nature of insubstantial dreams? There is wit here, too, and it is used to express something about the nature of the human condition. As Monk Gibbon wrote in 1951, Heckroth’s style “is not exactly mordant, it is not sardonic, it is not savage. But it is a great deal more than merely whimsical . . . [Heckroth] sees man as a figure in a gothic tale . . . and sometimes as a puppet at the mercy of fate, playing his part consequentially in a drama which he does not understand.” This is an eccentric, claustrophobic world, full of spectacle. It casts its inhabitants into strange roles. There is a very modern sensibility at work, even a postmodern one, and it suggests that, for all its strangeness, Heckroth’s work deserves more attention and sustained interpretation.

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