CVM's Fischinger Pages


Janiak, Larry and Dave Daruszka. "Oskar Fischinger: An Interview with Elfriede Fischinger." Zoetrope, 1979


This interview came about after we had the opportunity to meet and talk with Mrs. Fischinger following a screening of Oskar Fischinger's works in Chicago this spring. Through subsequent correspondence Elfriede agreed to answer questions we sent to her in regards to Oskar and his work. Mrs. Fischinger is active in preserving and completing the works of her husband and travels with a program of Fischinger's films. She plans to travel to the East Coast for three screenings in late March of 1979, and can be contacted for information about screenings.

Interview by Larry Janiak and Dave Daruszka (Zoetrope)

ZOETROPE: How and when did you meet Oskar?

Mrs. Fischinger: The best answer I can give, is from my memory. When I met Oskar about fall 1930, he had finished Study #7 and screened it proudly for me at the Kamera unter den Linden, an avant-garde theatre in Berlin.

I had traveled to Berlin for 4 days with a group of other Art-students from the Kunstgewebe-school of Offenbach. Only those who had an accredited piece of work in a certain exhibition in Berlin were invited and eligible for a reduced train-fare. Our chaperon was Professor Dr. Willi Mayer, whom we all called "Oncle Willi."

At that time, my father handed me a closed letter to deliver personally to Oskar, who had an independent special effects-trickfilm studio in Friedrichstrasse, Berlin.

My father had known Oskar from boyhood on and was always interested in Oskar; so much so, that he had even helped him financially.

ZOETROPE: Which of Oskar's films did you work on? What were your contributions?

Mrs. Fischinger: After our initial 4 days together in 1930, almost another 10 months passed before I joined Oskar again as his "Student-employee". He was already working on Study #8, but still synchronizing from a record and working with very primitive means. His animation stand was an old kitchen table in which he had cut a hole and covered with a matte-glass. He used two nails in four corners to position the papers. He had hired me to help fill in his outlined charcoal drawings.

He then introduced registration pins. All the drawings from Study #8 have corresponding registration holes, while earlier Study drawings have none.

My being at his studio became almost instantly a life of togetherness. We had the same interests and beliefs with slight variations. Basically we liked to go to the same places, liked to see and watch the same things, etc. We discussed and battled over unresolved issues and in most cases ended up agreeing and being happy together or suffering and sacrificing for a mutual goal: the audio-visual abstract film.

I hesitate to state what my contribution to Oskar's work may have been. In retrospect I probably was mostly his "Trouble-shooter" and I do like this America-industry expression, as it indicates that I had to solve arising problems, keep peace in the studio, answer unpleasant telephone interruptions and so on...

However if specifics are wanted, I can truthfully say that I worked, helped and assisted on almost all films that are preserved here at my archive from about the second third of Study #8 on. [1]

I helped very actively on "Composition in Blue" (there is a part in it, that I did completely alone) and I was the only one present when he made the color cigarette-film "Muratti marches on". For it he had rented an extra room across the street. The only time I did not have any contact with his work was when he made the black/white version for Paramount that we now call "Paragretto" and then "Toccata and Fugue" at the Disney Studio and for Orson Welles at R.K.O.

ZOETROPE: How did you, and Oskar's brother Hans, help produce the black and white "Studies" produced in Berlin in 1932?

Mrs. Fischinger: In 1932 we employed 3 girls for help. I had to supervise and assign their work, of filling in of Oskar's and Hans' drawings. Hans developed the drawings for (Study #9, 10 and 12) the three studies he worked on, after talking over the movements that had to match their synchronization plans.

Oskar had taught Hans all his methods and technical findings of his experiments.

I suppose I should mention here that Oskar had a training of one year as an organ-builder, 1 year as an apprentice of a city-architect and 3 years of practical engineering and tool-designing behind him, as well as almost ten years of experimental film-making.

Hans was ten years younger than Oskar and interrupted his Art-School-Studies for the sake of joining his older brother.

I have most of the synchronization schematics now here at the Fischinger archive and one can clearly recognize the different markings and handwritings of the two brothers.

ZOETROPE: Did you help with the production of Oskar's film "Der Unternehmer aus Verstandeskraft" in 1929? Could you explain this film in detail?

Mrs. Fischinger: First I would like to translate the word "Unternehmer" with "Entrepreneur" - it comes very close to the meaning as Oskar spoke many times of persons of great drive and achievement in those terms and called them "Entrepreneurs" for instance self-made people like Ziegfield or Orson Welles. "Unternehmer" in the German language means just such a person who is capable of envisioning, creating and organizing with the power (Kraft) of his intellect (Verstand) new tools or new organizations like airplanes, windmills, factories and such, that comprise progress or future structures and history. [2]

I was not with Oskar when he worked out this film experiment, but I gathered the above information from his own telling and/or from a drawing pertaining to this and from some writings here at his estate.

I could also believe that this short film sequence came into being, at about the time and in connection with "Das hohe Lied der Kraft."

ZOETROPE: Do you remember any anecdotes from the production of the "Muratti Marches On" cigarette commercial? What were your contributions to this production?

Mrs. Fischinger: As I said before, I was the only one permitted in the room with the Color-Cigarette film set up. I was the go-between of our regular Studio at 268 Friedrichstrasse and the specially rented place across the street.

My main task was to dye the sawdust groundcover and keep it smooth with something comparable to a long-handled toothbrush - to be able to get between cigarettes.

We had to overcome a lot of tricky difficulties, so it would not be easily detectable how it was done.

The illusion of the cigarettes moving by themselves was Oskar's uppermost concern and it proved to be a startling and successful surprise. The audience clapped approval and delight at the premiere before the film was half through. This little advertising film had a run of one full year in one of the most important theatres in Berlin.

ZOETROPE: Who were in your circle of friends in the experimental film community when you resided in Berlin?

Mrs. Fischinger: What one might call a circle of friends were people like Dr. Leonhard Furst, who was our best-man at our civil ceremony wedding, together with my best girlfriend Trudl Gudjons. Besides these two really close friends there were several music and experiment-minded people like Paul Hindemith, Prof. Trautwein, Karl Mengelberg jr., or journalists and writers like Dr. Bernhard Diebold, Dr. Fritz Boehme, Hans Schuhmacher, from the Film Tradepaper "Filmkurier" and also at times Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Joris Ivens, Robert Wiene (Caligary f.) and Guide Seeber (Ki-Pho Film) and many more. Some of the latter we would only meet occasionally at the Zigeuner-Keller Restaurant or the Romanisches cafehaus or Cafe am Potsdamer Platz after a film or theatre premiere or an evening at the cabaret.

Mostly relaxation meant going to see a film or checking out new designs and magazines at art libraries. Oskar's most favored place was a coffee-haus at the Bell-Alliance Platz, stacked with all or most of the important newspapers of the continent, where you could linger and read undisturbed for hours over a cup of coffee.

ZOETROPE: Did Oskar know Paul Klee or Wassily Kandinsky while living in Germany?

Mrs. Fischinger: Oskar did not know Paul Klee or Wassily Kandinsky personally, but knew of them and their work.

He got to know their work better when he became acquainted with Karl Nierendorf, a well-known Berlin Art-Gallery owner, who also published books for the early Bauhaus in Weimar and its artists.

Karl Nierendorf called us after the premiere of "Composition in Blue," jubilantly congratulating us for our courage to create an abstract film in the face of all the condemnation in 1934 of so-called "degenerated art."

ZOETROPE: Did you study with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in a school prior to the Bauhaus? What school was this? When did you and Oskar first meet Moholy? Did Oskar have any influence in Moholy's film making. Was there any collaboration between them? Did Oskar ever lecture or give film showings at the Bauhaus? What was the reason behind their falling out?

Mrs. Fischinger: It would take a dissertation to answer such a complex question. Neither Oskar nor I ever studed at the Bauhaus or with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

I went for 2-1/2 years to the "Kunstgewerbe-school" in Offenbach, specializing in Tapestry design.

Oskar's contact with Moholy was mostly professional. Moholy rented Oskar's Reel of Experiments, containing also the early "Ornament-sounds" and showed it in connection with his lectures.

ZOETROPE: Would you describe Oskar's interest in mysticism and yoga? Did Oskar feel that his interest in Eastern Metaphysics [had] an integral influence, or relationship to his personal film making or his later paintings? Did you and Oskar know Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Swami Prabhavananda of the Vedanta Society, Swami Yogananda, or any of this California metaphysical group in Hollywood?

Mrs. Fischinger: I feel somewhat inadequate to describe Oskar's interest in Yoga and mysticism. Of course this interest was very evident even in his every day life. He kept strictly to daily breathing exercises, not at precise hours, but as regularly as possible, when the house became quiet and the children were in school.

He also painted several pictures specifically for meditation; one of them with the title "Contemplation." Most of his paintings have great harmony. Serious conversations usually centered around metaphysical thoughts and not necessarily Eastern metaphysical, but quite universal.

Many of his manuscripts tell us this now and I think Dr. William Moritz, his biographer, has amply explained this trend in Oskar's Bio-Filmography in the Triple-Issue of "Film Culture" #58.59.60. Back issue 1974.

Neither Oskar nor I knew any of the writers and personalities in your question; but we knew Krishnamurti and Ding Le Mei of "The Institute of Mentalphysics" here in Los Angeles.

ZOETROPE: Could you describe John Cage's efforts to work with Oskar? Describe the incident which ended this brief relationship.

Mrs. Fischinger: I am sorry I cannot describe an incident (as reported) at which I was not present. All that I remember is that John Cage was an adolescent at the time of the making of "Optical Poem" in 1938 for M.G.M. He was at Oskar's studio at the request of Galka Scheyer, who knew John and his family and who wanted Oskar to find a job for him; because of budget limitation this was not possible.

I did not recall anything concerning John Cage's working at Oskar's studio until I read the report of an interview between John and Bill Moritz published in the brochure for the International Animation Festival in Ottawa 1976 concerning a Fischinger Retrospective.

From my knowledge of Oskar and the way he worked, he would not have fallen asleep while working as reported; he also would not have smoked working with film that was in 1938 still nitrate films. However it could have been a rehearsal with no nitrate present at the time, - but that would have been the first and only time Oskar staged a rehearsal.

ZOETROPE: How did Oskar come to work with Paramount studios, and later Disney studios? How did the working relationships compare with those at German studios at which Oskar worked?  

Mrs. Fischinger: I think Paramount offered Oskar the contract at the beginning of 1936 basically because of Oskar's growing reputation as a very successful experimental and advertising film maker.

Oskar would have been very reluctant to sign with Paramount if he had known that it meant giving up artistic principles and working under factory conditions.

The same pertains for the contract with the Walt Disney Studio. It just did not work out very well. I remember Oskar being at his happiest and best when he could work independently.

We had our own studio in Berlin and created one outstanding film after another in those years from 1929-36.

In Germany Oskar was only once in an employment situation in the years 1927-28 at the UFA-Studios, Berlin working for Fritz Lang's "Frau im Mond" (Woman on the Moon).

He was hired for special effects camera work and, besides other tricks, made a rocket fly off into space before there was a real rocket. He repeated this flying rocket trick here in L.A., California, for the Four-Star Company for a program on TV called "Captain Midnight." I believe around the late Forties - in any case before there was color TV.

ZOETROPE: How did Oskar's participation in "Fantasia" come about? What problems did he encounter while working for Disney?

Mrs. Fischinger: It is very difficult for me to report anything relating to Oskar's employment at the Disney Studios.

Economic pressures had forced Oskar to enter into a humiliating contract with Disney. After first joining joyfully the Disney artists working on "Fantasia" and hoping to find satisfaction, because it represented an idea which Oskar had thought of for many years (in fact he had discussed this concept of combined movement-form-color and music keyed to the general public with Leopold Stokowski as early as 1936). Oskar soon found out that he could not convince Walt Disney and his staff of artistic values.

So I will not elaborate any further, but let anybody know, who is more interested in what happened that time to read the excellent write-up by Bill Moritz in the back issue of "Millimeter Magazine" Vol. 5 #2, February 1977, a special animation issue, with the article: "Fischinger at Disney or Oskar in the Mousetrap." [3]

ZOETROPE: How did Oskar view the necessity of producing commercial material to support the family?

Mrs. Fischinger: Oskar did not seem to mind to produce advertising films as long as we were in Berlin. In fact, I know he showed them proudly.

We have to consider that he had almost complete freedom in their conceptual ideas and execution; they were new, original and sensational.

I believe his aversion to later on to talk or show his advertising work came after Paramount's insistence of making (in Oskar's opinion) a step backwards and shooting this black/white mix-version that we call now "Paragretto."

The 3 little TV spots that I am showing now in my lectures were the only advertising films he made here in California with 2 exceptions. One was a strict story-board film for a box cereal and the other one advanced only as far as a story-board by Oskar himself for "Pure" gasoline.

I have those story-board drawings here in the archive. They are quite wonderful. Too bad this film was never made.

ZOETROPE: What did Oskar strive for in his experimental work? How did he view his difficulties in producing independent films? What do you feel were Oskar's contributions to the art of animation?

Mrs. Fischinger: I would feel very presumptuous to even attempt to state what Oskar was striving for in his experimental work. I can only say that some of his early manuscripts tell us already that he hoped to produce some day an audio-visual abstract concert feature.

All the difficulties in the world, in Europe as well as here, could not discourage him to keep working and forging ahead independently. He needed freedom to develop all those different animation techniques that are now being used by people that are not even aware of who brought them into use.

ZOETROPE: How do you view the rediscovery and renewed interest in Oskar's work?

Mrs. Fischinger: Of course I welcome the renewed interest and try to do my very best to further and stimulate it. However, I am also trying to keep the whole estate together. I believe it will be of greater benefit if a scholar has the chance to see and have access to Oskar's main body of work all in one place.

To me it is not so much of a rediscovery. He was always known more or less. He had many admirers during his lifetime already, as well as imitators, to his great chagrin. He never took imitation as a compliment (maybe in part), but he usually aired his contempt for imitators.

He avoided going to exhibitions in order not to be influenced.

I, myself, am very happy over the increased interest in his unique creations and I will as long and as good as I can try to reveal, show and explain to all who want to know all that I know about him and his work.

All my hopes concern a future plan - to be able to have the archive so well organized that all of Oskar's work will be within easy access to scholars of the cinema and film making. [4]


Published in Zoetrope: The Publication of Commercial and Experimental Media. No. 3, March 1979.


[1] This claim is perhaps a bit exaggerated, according to Fischinger's daughter Barbara, and William Moritz, his biographer. Barbara has related that in the US, Elfriede was often not allowed in Oskar's studio.

[2] A fragment of this "entrepreneuer" footage can be seen in the Bonus Features of the Oskar Fischinger:Ten Films DVD released by Center for Visual Music.

[3] This article contains errata, which Moritz corrected in his later published articles.

[4] Thanks to William Moritz and Barbara Fischinger, Oskar's papers, films, many animation drawings, animation artwork and notated scores are at the archive of Center for Visual Music (CVM). CVM co-published a book in 2013 which includes a selection of items from the archive: Keefer, Cindy and Jaap Guldemond, eds. Oskar Fischinger, Experiments in Cinematic Abstraction. Co-published with EYE Filmmuseum, distributed by Thames & Hudson.



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