There is gore on everything; opera is synonymous with bloodshed and erotic violence.

– Peter Conrad1

In the beginning was the Word – and the Word was the Director. The cinema of Michael Powell is a world shaped and ruled by the absolute and overriding power of the director’s eye. In his 1986 memoir A Life in Movies, Powell wrote of his decision to film Black Narcissus (1947) – a tale of nuns in a convent in the Himalayas – not in the mountains of India but on a soundstage at Pinewood Studios in London. “The atmosphere in this film is everything, and we must create and control it from the start.”2 A more ‘democratic’ artist (a Jean Renoir or Roberto Rossellini, perhaps) might have voluntarily taken his camera out into the world to catch any stray impulse that arose; Powell was a self-confessed ‘absolutist’ who created and controlled his worlds as if through Divine Right.

Dare we wonder that Powell’s cinema abounds in men who embody the archetype of ‘the Magus’ – the Demiurge, the Magician, the Puppet-Master who carves his dolls by hand and pulls their strings? The dourly glowering Hebridean patriarch in The Edge of the World (1937) or the demonic all-powerful wizard in The Thief of Baghdad (1940); the impresario as tyrannical aesthete in The Red Shoes (1948); the shape-shifting Evil Genius who haunts all four stories in The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). In theory, each is the villain in his particular film. Yet he is also the one who commands our attention and compels our eye. Remove him and not only might the film become unwatchable; it would also, in all likelihood, have never existed at all.

The culmination of this archetype has long been seen as the psychotic cameraman in Peeping Tom (1960) – who murders women and records their death agonies on celluloid. Powell made that film after breaking amicably with his creative partner of twenty years, Emeric Pressburger. Their later films had flopped and producers now dismissed them as “visionary aesthetes or perverted stylists with nothing to say.”3 Peeping Tom is widely viewed as the pinnacle Powell’s later work. Yet its primacy may well be an illusion, one that is dispelled as a long-missing fragment of the puzzle falls suddenly and unexpectedly into place. That fragment is Herzog Blaubarts Burg (Bluebeard’s Castle, 1963) an hour-long film made for West German TV and based on a 1911 opera by Béla Bartók. Long unavailable due to copyright issues, it has now been restored and re-released by the BFI. Its resurrection may compel us to re-evaluate the entire trajectory of Powell’s late solo career.

The bass-baritone Norman Foster sings the role of Bluebeard, deranged nobleman who marries a series of women and murders them one by one. The critic Laura Mulvey has traced the lines that link him, all too clearly, to Mark (Carl Boehm) in Peeping Tom. “Mark’s inner room, where he keeps on film the ‘bodies’ of the women he kills, is similar to the mysterious locked room where Duke Bluebeard keeps the bodies of his former wives.”4 The French director Bertrand Tavernier goes a few steps further: “Bluebeard is Mark’s twin brother. Both live in a universe of death and desolation, haunted by terrifying memories of their crimes and broken dreams.”5 Both men are typical Powell anti-heroes; their compulsion to control the world around them leads to death for everything and everyone they touch.

The action is an extended folie à deux between Bluebeard and his latest wife Judit (Ana Raquel Satre). The libretto by Béla Balázs (later a pioneering film theorist) shows Bluebeard as desperate to hide the ghosts in his castle from the eyes of his new bride. It is she who demands the keys to his seven locked chambers, the last of which holds the corpses of his murdered wives. The critic Peter Bradshaw points out how “Bluebeard’s horrendous secret is unveiled as a conjugal act on the wedding night, analogous to and as important as sex.”6 Yet if Bluebeard is an avatar for Powell as the all-creating and all-controlling director, his wife – with her obsessive desire to see all there is to be seen – may well be a stand-in for us, the film-watching public. Her voyeuristic compulsion becomes a match for ours, as the chamber doors swing open to reveal their grisly objets d’art.

Giant phallic swords (wrapped in tinfoil) float in mid-air and waggle menacingly at the camera. Cellophane tears rain down into a pool of swirling indigo and turquoise. Magic flowers blossom obscenely, triumphantly, like excrescences of rotting or cancerous flesh. Powell’s long-term designer Hein Heckroth conjures a Surrealist fantasy realm on next to no budget. This ethos of DIY avant-gardism led Powell to recall: “Everyone was a professional, and everyone acted like a complete amateur.”7 The decor lures us ever deeper into the mind of a madman, compelling us to see through his eyes. The chamber of murdered brides is a portent of a later no-budget masterpiece maudit, Geträumte Sünden (Succubus, 1967) by Jesús Franco, with its gallery of lethal mannequins. The dead wives too are mannequins, swathed in lace and gauze and each one bathed in her pool of primary colour. Red for sunrise, yellow for daylight, deepest blue for night. 

As Judit takes her place among them, she becomes a female Saint Sebastian, her body skewered by the glittering tinfoil swords. Nor do we ever see Bluebeard drive a sword in. He kills as he does everything else – through the hypnotic and homicidal power of his gaze. It may be a cliché to say “if looks could kill.” Yet the eyes of Powell and Bluebeard can and do. The Puppet-Master pulls his final string; the Magus plays his final card. We have come to an abyss of death and madness, to a womb where everything is silent and dark. Might this be the place where cinema began? Must it then be the place where cinema must ultimately go?

Herzog Blaubarts Burg/Bluebeard’s Castle (1963 West Germany 63 mins)

Prod. Co: Ashbrittle Films, Süddeutscher Rundfunk Prod: Norman Foster Dir: Michael Powell Scr: Béla Balázs Phot: Hannes Staudinger Mus: Béla Bartók Ed: Paula Dvorak Prod Des: Hein Heckroth

Cast: Norman Foster, Ana Raquel Satre


  1. Peter Conrad, A Song of Love and Death – The Meaning of Opera (New York: Poseidon Press, 1987), p. 215.
  2. Michael Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography (London: Mandarin Paperbacks, 1992), p. 562-563.
  3. Nanette Aldred, “Hein Heckroth and The Archers” in The Cinema of Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Film-Maker, Ian Christie and Andrew Moor, eds. (London: BFI Publishing, 2005), p. 202.
  4. Laura Mulvey, “The Light that Fails: A Commentary on Peeping Tom” in The Cinema of Michael Powell: International Perspectives on an English Film-Maker, Ian Christie and Andrew Moor, eds. (London: BFI Publishing, 2005), p. 154.
  5. Bertrand Tavernier, “Film Notes: Herzog Blaubarts Burg Michael Henry Wilson, trans., Il Cinema Ritrovato, 2008.
  6. Peter Bradshaw, “Bluebeard’s Castle review – Michael Powell’s amazing serial-killer opera film,” The Guardian, 30 November 2023.
  7. Michael Powell, Million-Dollar Movie: The Second Volume of His Life in Movies, (London: Mandarin Paperbacks, 1993), p. 461.

About The Author

David Melville is a Teaching Fellow in Film Studies and Literature at the University of Edinburgh Centre for Open Learning. He teaches courses on Michael Powell and Dark Fairy Tales and is currently working on a book about Cinema and Queer Spectatorship.

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