Bluebeard’s Castle

(Michael Powell) 1963 BFI Blu Ray



Of course Bluebeard’s Castle is one of Michael Powell’s striking music films.  And he’s made quite a few of them.  Powell directs the opera’s singers / actors with a purposeful intensity; knowing when to move his camera, edit and compose imagery so as to exactly complement the throbbing visceral music of Bartok’s masterpiece.

For Powell Bluebeard’s Castle was a very happy and relaxed shoot.  No compromises: total control within a studio setting, directing a cast of two and guiding Hannes Staudinger his untried but highly skilled cameraman.  One man’s vision.  Well not quite.

“…Powell, though a true auteur, often thought more like an impresario, or a producer, who draws ideas from a team of collaborators.”

Raymond Durgnat

Arguably the principal auteur of this stunning film is set designer Hein Heckroth.  Heckroth was a regular Powell and Pressburger collaborator on The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffman and Gone to Earth.  There are numerous design options open to Bluebeard.  Leslie Megahey’s terrific 1989 BBC film brought a naturalistic approach to Bartok’s one act modernist psychodrama.  In 1963 Heckroth and Powell went for an artificial and symbolic representation.  Both are equally valid.

For a drama of the mind Heckroth’s plasticity works wonders.  The jagged angularity of his expressionist design attacks you with its visual weirdness.  Bluebeard’s rooms have the distortion of a Caligari-like chamber of madness and oppression.  They’re rooms packed with dangerous decoration yet not cluttered, allowing Powell to track round the set as if a watchful panther prowling by the side of a stern Bluebeard (Norman Foster) and resistant Judith (Ana Raquel Satre).

Two versions of this 60 minute film were shot: one in English and the other in German.  My sole criticism is that at times you miss the Hungarian of Bela Balazs’s libretto.  I can’t speak Hungarian but the sound of certain words (translated by English subtitles) has a steely toughness that feels softened by a Germanic tone.  Yet the loss isn’t irreparable, more a momentarily subduing of this strange couple’s dark conversation.

The singing is excellent.  And Powell’s sympathy for his characters means Foster and Satre give of their interpretive best.  Powell emphasises with the couple’s predicament.  On the surface the opera can be seen as a misogynist Bluebeard propelling his latest lover towards her death.  But it’s never that simple.  Bartok’s music explores a male / female psyche with its emotional insecurities, curiosity, invasion of boundaries, shifts of sexual power and the idealisation of love.  Judith insists that Bluebeard open the seven doors of his life experiences.  Bluebeard keeps warning her to stop yet eventually hands over the keys.  Is he playing with her or simply goading Judith on?  What is Bluebeard’s Castle really all about?

Powell is sensitive to the work’s density and yet you feel he’s fascinated by the monstrous side of Bluebeard.  The film is about a killer.  This refers back to the killer in Michael Powell’s film Peeping Tom made four years earlier where Mark (Carl Boehm) killed his victims, filming them at the moment of their death.  Mark wishes to contain the women on film as much as in his head.  And Bluebeard’s Castle is a depiction of a possessive male psychology desiring to internally trap its female captives.

Powell brilliantly employs superimposition so that we see a huge close up of Bluebeard where a tiny Judith struggles inside his brow.  And at one moment an enormous slide projection of Bluebeard’s face towers over her.  Here I was reminded of the stylised staging of Syberborg’s film of the opera Parsifal and his Hitler, a film from Germany made decades later.

Continuities with other Michael Powell films can be traced.  Duke Bluebeard comes after Mark who comes after all the villainous and magical characters played by Robert Helpman in The Tales of Hoffman and Boris Lermentov (Anton Walbrook) in The Red Shoes.  All these men exhibit monstrous traits of control.

Technically the colour photography, lighting and set decoration in Hoffman and Shoes are frequently as claustrophobic as Bluebeard.  There are even moments that create the illusion, especially in Bluebeard and Tales of Hoffman, of watching a 3D film.  Long unavailable and hard to see Bluebeard’s Castle has now received a very fine BFI restoration and is a thrilling highlight of the current Powell and Pressburger celebrations.

Alan Price © 2023.