Bright Lights Film Journal

Oscar Fischinger’s Visual Music: Ten Short Films by the Master Animator on DVD

Film historians have made much, and rightly so, of the enormous influence of 1930s German and Austrian émigrés on the American film scene and by extension on American culture in general. Alongside auteurs like Murnau, Wilder, Preminger, Ulmer, et al. were artists toiling in more rarified realms. One of the most important (and lately overlooked) of these was the avant-garde animator and painter Oskar Fischinger. He worked at UFA in the 1920s, designed special effects for Lang’s silent sci-fi flick Woman on the Moon, fled the Nazis for making “degenerate” art, created shorts for Paramount and M-G-M, spent a year with Disney on Fantasia, had a stint with Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre, and settled in Hollywood, where he lived, painted, and animated until his death in 1967.

Fischinger was born in Germany in 1900. An engineer and draftsman by trade, he co-owned an animation company in Munich by age 22, producing a variety of experimental films. His early artistic goal was to combine two of his great passions, music and the graphic arts. To this end, he experimented with photographing multiple forms – melting wax, cardboard cutouts, swirling liquids. According to Fischinger historian William Moritz, he devised “a machine that would slice very thin layers from a prepared block of wax, with a camera synchronized to take one frame of the remaining surface of the block. Any kind of image could be built into the wax block – a circle getting smaller would be a simple cone, for example.” Later he would create a Technicolor-style camera for Bela Gaspar that he would utilize in his early color films. Fischinger’s technical and creative efforts were applied, along with scores from Bach and Beethoven, to a hitherto unseen abstract art form known as “visual music.” A long-overdue reassessment of his achievement in this area is now possible, thanks to this seven-film compilation (the first of a projected series) that samples his work from 1927 through 1947.

Some of Fischinger’s shorts took the form of advertisements. In 1934, he made Muratti Grieft Ein (Muratti Gets in the Act) for a popular cigarette company. This is one of Fischinger’s most startling works, a clear and in some ways superior precursor to the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence in Fantasia. In this case it’s a series of cigarettes marching in mad formation rather than broomsticks, and the overall effect (unlike in the rather disturbing Disney film) is of a vast, pleasurable energy made of sound, shape, and color and barely contained. Think Busby Berkeley with cigarettes rather than half-naked women.

Seelische Konstruktionen (Spiritual Constructions), from 1927, opens with two silhouetted male figures drinking together at a table. Over the course of the next few minutes, they change rapidly into all manner of shapes, objects, and creatures – miscellaneous blobs, snakes, lines, even a house that spits them out. This early take on psychedelia is a wonderfully witty exploration of a vast interior landscape.

Studie Nr. 7 (Study No. 7) was one of a dozen “studies” spanning the 1920s and ’30s. This one is a gorgeous visual tone poem with a few small, dynamic white shapes popping decoratively out of a sea of blackness. The mood here is reminiscent of the minimalist work of underground filmmakers like Gregory Markopoulos.

Filmstudie Nr. 8 (Film Study No. 8) takes the trancelike properties of the previous film to greater extremes, with dazzling shapes blinking on and off the screen to the rhythm of Paul Dukas’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Critic Christopher Knight has compared this to the Fantasia sequence that uses the same music, with Disney coming up second. He calls Fischinger’s film “a giddy, liberating experience of space in four dimensions.”

The next film here is in color (Gasparcolor). Kreise again shows Fischinger’s surprising modernism, this time using a vertigo-inducing Op art/Pop art canvas that predicts the work of later, lesser talents like Peter Max. It’s puzzling indeed that works like this weren’t revived for mass consumption during the 1960s.

The 1936 color short Allegretto was originally made as an insert for a Paramount feature, The Big Broadcast of 1937, but the studio wanted to print it in black-and-white to fit the film and Fischinger refused. Eventually he bought back the rights to it. Again it’s hard to believe this film – with its dizzying concentric circles moving in and out of each other, its bold, beautiful colors, and wild angles – was made more than six decades ago.

The final entry here is Motion Painting (1947), which matches the Brandenburg Concerto #3 to a series of sensuous abstractions. Ever the seer, during one sequence, Fischinger created a multicolored grid that looks disturbingly like a computer motherboard.

Fischinger’s predictions of abstract animation, Op art, psychedelia, light and laser shows, and other modern sensory phenomena weren’t his only innovations. Fans of Warhol’s Chelsea Girls may be shocked to hear that Fischinger used multiple overlapping projected images at live multimedia concerts in the 1920s. Music video addicts should know that MTV did not pioneer that form. As William Moritz says, “Fischinger made a deal with Electrola Records to synchronize his further Studies with Electrola’s phonograph recordings and to include an end title saying ‘You have heard Electrola Disk #1337, Vaya Veronika – Get it at your local record store!'”

Fischinger’s unique talents were recognized early; by 1935 his films were being shown on cinema screens and at film festivals throughout the world as the last word in modernism. The Nazis’ censure of his work as “degenerate” in 1936 was perhaps inevitable; this much visual joy had to be suppressed. At any rate, he got his revenge on the Nazis in films like Muratti; besides being a brilliant work of art, with its goose-stepping cigarettes it’s also a devastating satire on the kind of fascist groupthink at which the Nazis excelled.