Disney’s Nutcracker fails to capture the uncanny original fantasy of ETA Hoffmann

Even among the barely appropriate German Romantics, Hoffmann was the bad fairy at the feast. But his Nussknacker und Mauskönig contained many surprises. 

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Throughout the English-speaking world, ETA Hoffmann is best known for what others have made of his life and works. Although available in direct translation from the German, Hoffmann‘s stories tend to come to us via numerous reworkings and transpositions. He provides the raw materials for others: the author Alexandre Dumas, the composers Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Jacques Offenbach, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Now, with release of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, it’s been the turn of Disney to repackage what is, alongside Der Sandmann, Hoffmann’s most famous story, Nussknacker und Mauskönig.

There’s an assumption, perhaps understandable, that someone who died almost 200 years ago, having lived a notoriously dissolute life, wrote tales that were too dark for modern-day consumption. Reviews of Disney‘s Nutcracker reference its “dark” origins, albeit without ever going into detail. It’s difficult not to conclude that whatever one might be imagining, Hoffmann’s version is even more disturbing.

It’s a common belief about fairy tales in general, whether by that we mean traditional, orally-transmitted tales with no named author or the more artfully constructed written narratives of Hoffmann and his Romantic contemporaries. Children of the past gulped down tales of incest, child murder and mutilation (all of which, to be fair, put in an appearance in Hoffmann’s oeuvre); today’s children, or more precisely their parents, wouldn’t stand for it.

Even among the barely appropriate German Romantics, Hoffmann was the bad fairy at the feast. He mainly wrote for adults and was, in the eyes of contemporaries, a negative influence even on them. Goethe described his stories as “the feverish dreams of a sick mind”, while Walter Scott bemoaned the way in which “the sick works of a suffering man” had “infected” healthy souls. Rehabilitation, initially through the championing of French Romantics such as Théophile Gautier and Offenbach‘s opera Contes d’Hoffmann, came long after Hoffmann’s death, although one wonders whether he’d have appreciated it fully.

Hoffmann was a difficult character: arrogant, self-deprecating, pretentious, lecherous, prodigiously talented and seemingly addicted to self-destruction. He combined writing, composing and conducting with more mundane administrative work, routinely getting himself into trouble for slipping caricatures of colleagues and absurd workplace scenarios into his stories. He drank and drank and drank, tracking alcohol consumption in relation to artistic inspiration in diaries that are part-despairing genius, part-Bridget Jones anxiety, part-Adrian Mole bathos. His alcoholism – derided by contemporaries, fetishised by Offenbach – is likely what killed him at the age of 46.

His presence in his own stories verges on the intrusive. Time and again, stunted, grotesque, repellent yet also underappreciated, inspired, mesmerising artist figures step to the fore. Misunderstood by bourgeois colleagues and dull, straight wives-in-waiting, they, and they alone, bring the reader in touch with a higher realm. The passive-aggression – love me, I’m a suffering artist! – verges on the ridiculous, yet one suspects Hoffmann himself knew this. He is his own caricature. For all the wallowing, indeed delighting, in the bitterness of the self-styled artistic outsider, his stories are extremely funny, packed with ironic asides and self-parody. No one who publishes an autobiography of his own cat – an autobiography which, supposedly written on the back pages of a biography of Johannes Kreisler, one of Hoffmann’s fictional alter egos, takes postmodern self-referentiality to another level, yet genuinely captures the cat-voice in the way only a true cat-lover could – takes himself all that seriously.

Unlike most of his stories, Nussknacker und Mauskönig was written with children in mind (specifically, the children of Hoffmann‘s friend Julius Eduard Hitzig). Anyone expecting a story that is unremittingly dark, desperately in need of the sugar plum revisions of Tchaikovsky then Disney, would, I think, be surprised. It’s sharp, funny, inventive, with masses of heart. Marie Stahlbaum, goddaughter of the mysterious Droßelmeier, finds herself guardian of a nutcracker who is under attack from a band of vengeful mice, led by the seven-headed Mouse King. A story within the story, narrated by Droßelmeier, tells of how the mice came to be at war with the nutcracker, who started life as an ordinary young man. Having helped the nutcracker to defeat the Mouse King, Marie is transported to a magical realm of dolls and sweets. Later, after she wakes back in her own bed, she struggles to convince others that what happened was more than a dream. The story ends with Marie marrying Droßelmeier's nephew, whom she believes to be the nutcracker, released from the Mouse King's curse. After a year the pair go back to live in the magic realm, filled with the most wonderous sights, “if only one has eyes to see them”.

The ambivalent final line is classic Hoffmann. The possibility that Marie was dreaming, or even that she has gone mad, is never ruled out. Perhaps Marie is just an artistic spirit, like Hoffmann, misunderstood by the world at large. It could be that all these things are true. The sugary happy ending is delivered with one eyebrow raised, yet there’s nothing smug or damning about Hoffmann's irony. It’s strangely compassionate; whichever truth one picks is the one that matters. 

As Freud was later to write with reference to Der Sandmann, “an uncanny effect often arises when the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred, when we are faced with the reality of something that we have until now considered imaginary, when a symbol takes on the full function and significance of what it symbolises”. To which it’s hard not to respond with “well, duh! That’s what Hoffmann was already saying, but in a much more entertaining way than you”.

Unlike The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, or even Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Hoffmann’s Nussknacker has an internal coherence underpinning the imaginative anarchy. The reason why his work is so often talked over, flattened, patronised, even (“no, this is what he meant. He meant to tell it this way”) isn’t entirely clear to me. Some fault must lie with Hoffmann himself, but I suspect an imperialistic attitude towards products of the past which seem unduly postmodern also has a role to play. We don’t quite trust those who came before us to have known what they were doing. Hoffmann knew.

Managing the interplay between fantastic and mundane, everyday worlds requires more than state-of-the-art CGI. Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston’s Nutcracker is visually beautiful, but it lacks the beating heart that comes from truly grasping how worlds and souls relate to one another. Sometimes this does not need to be spelled out. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland can play fast and loose with backstories and emotional coherence, relying on the fact that most viewers have a pre-existing emotional attachment to Wonderland’s symbols and structures. The same isn’t true for The Nutcracker as cultural artefact. We half-know it. It provides background music for Christmas holiday advertising, wooden ornaments to hang on the tree. The tragi-comic origins of the Nutcracker himself – he’s the nephew of Pate Droßelmeier, who is basically ETA Hoffmann but also not Hoffmann, obviously, and is turned into a nutcracker when he trips on a vengeful mouse having handed a princess a nut in order to release her from a curse and honestly, you just have to read it yourself – are not so well known.

It would be churlish to complain that Disney’s Nutcracker character doesn’t crack any actual nuts. Still, I’m going to. He isn’t really a nutcracker at all. By the time we get to him, the curse has already been lifted. He swears allegiance to Clara Stahlbaum in honour of what her late mother, Marie, has done for the Four Realms, but the backstory – and how this relates to the position of Morgan Freeman’s Drosselmeyer – is patchy. Watching the film, one is put through a laborious matching up of symbols. The owl in that world is like the owl in this one! The mechanical swans on the clock are like the swans in the palace! And … that’s it. The visual connections just aren’t supported by emotional ones.

While there’s much to enjoy in the film (the commedia del’arte characters beneath the skirts of Helen Mirren’s Mother Ginger are a grotesque delight, while the ballet is enchanting), the overall effect is colder than that of Hoffmann’s supposedly darker original. Whereas Hoffmann’s narratives are drenched in silliness – any character, however tragic, however fantastical, could suddenly make a random reference to the absurdities of the Prussian legal system or the need to use a chamber pot – the film’s humour is box-ticked by Jack Whitehall and Omid Djalili. The threat that hovers over Hoffmann’s enchanted kingdom is diffuse (are the inhabitants really happy? What’s the real function of the sugar-drug?) whereas the film scoops up badness and stuffs it into the body of one character alone. There’s an absence of texture and with it, daring.

Courage is reduced to feistiness. Mackenzie Foy, who plays Clara, has spoken of her delight at being “the kick-ass heroine who wears nice dresses and shoes”. This is fair enough, but Hoffmann’s Marie Stahlbaum, hardly the product of a feminist imagination, was already hurling her slipper at the Mouse King back in 1816. Nods to feminine empowerment don’t compensate for over-simplification, particularly when the removal of supposedly complex scaffolding risks making the whole edifice collapse.

It’s true that we’ve moved beyond a time during which fairy tales made sense. It’s not true even for Disney. Frozen, for all its cliché, had just enough emotional ambiguity mixed with straightforward magic to grab you by the heart, if you were willing to let it. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms feels like a missed opportunity. If the creators were, as is claimed, aiming to take a step back towards Hoffmann‘s original, then it‘s a wheel half-reinvented. At times it has the feel of a computer game: cross the bridge, open the gates, jump off the wall, beat the boss. Only characters in computer games tend to be more unpredictable, with more than one twist.

I would hope that the film leads more people to an interest in and appreciation of Hoffmann’s work. He was his own worst enemy, someone who ridiculed, mythologised and caricatured himself to such an extent that the artist got lost beneath the layers. He wasn’t just a muse for an opera, or the inspiration for a ballet, or even just some drunken Prussian civil servant. He was an absolute genius, but also an utter prat, as all the best geniuses are. The darkness and the silliness are there for us all to enjoy.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.