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In Passing... Elfriede Fischinger

William Moritz relays the life of Elfriede Fischinger, wifeof Oskar, who made significant contributions to the preservation of animationhistory.

Elfriede Fischinger

Elfriede Fischinger was born September 17, 1910 in Gelnhausen (near Frankfurt), Germany. Her father owned a prosperous drug store, and she attended the prestigious College of Design in Offenbach. In 1931 one of her abstract textile designs won a prize and was published in Embroidery and Lace magazine. It was also exhibited in Berlin, and Elfriede went there for the week-end. Animator and painter Oskar Fischinger had borrowed a considerable amount of money from Elfriede's father, who asked her to drop by for a surprise visit to find out if Oskar was really working on worthwhile projects, and not just squandering the borrowed money. It so happened that on this particular week-end Oskar's Study No. 7 was playing as a short with the premiere of a new Elisabeth Bergner movie, and Oskar took Elfriede to see it. Bergner happened to be Elfriede's favorite movie star, and she was dazzled by meeting her in person, but also thrilled by Oskar's short animation. She longed to stay in the glamorous capital, but one of the conditions of her schooling was that she spend at least a year's time working in one of the government-sponsored Durer Houses, which sold homemade arts and crafts to help support folk handicraft traditions. Afterwards, Elfriede did return to Berlin and began helping with Oskar's animation projects, along with Oskar's brother Hans, and Elfriede's school chum, Gertrude Gudjongs, filling in charcoal shapes, painting colored forms on paper, and patiently clicking the single frames of the camera after small changes had been made in the artwork. Oskar and Elfriede were married late in 1933.

The Nazi government was hostile to abstract art, calling it "degenerate," and Oskar's outspoken leftist sympathies placed him in real danger. Fortunately, early in 1936 they were able to emigrate to Hollywood where Oskar, who spoke no English, worked briefly for Paramount (Oskar's short Allegretto), MGM (Oskar's short Optical Poem), and Disney (designs for the Bach episode in Fantasia). When the war began, although they were refugees, had applied for U.S. citizenship and even had children born in America, Oskar and Elfriede were officially designated as "enemy aliens," and Oskar was prohibited from working in any communications industry. Orson Welles hired him briefly and paid him cash without listing him in the books, and the Guggenheim foundation gave him very modest stipends, but Elfriede essentially supported their family of 5 children as a fashion designer for Mascot Studios, Susie's Sweaters and Andrea of Beverly Hills, as well as countless jobs baby-sitting, cooking and other household tasks. Even when Oskar's film Motion Painting won the Grand Prize at the Brussels Film Festival in 1949 (it was recently also added to the Library of Congress's list of artistic treasures), he still could find little support for his animation, and more or less gave it up in favor of oil painting which he could do easily and cheaply at home.

After the death of her husband early in 1967, Elfriede embarked on the project of restoring his films. When they fled Germany, they were not allowed to bring any film or equipment with them, so Oskar had only single prints of some of his films that MGM and Paramount had brought from Germany among their own film copies. Fortunately, their son Karl was in the American army and was assigned to the occupation troops in Germany. In the early 1960s he returned home to California, and brought with him as "household goods" all the films, papers and artworks that Oskar had had in his Berlin studio. Elfriede had stored them in the basement of her family's drugstore in Gelnhausen -- and they had miraculously survived when Gelnhausen was bombed! By the time they arrived in America, Oskar was already in poor health, but he tried to go through all the films and label them, though some of the labels were cryptic, and some inadequate (one advertising film had the simple notation "shit"). With seemingly tireless energy, Elfriede set about reading all the documents, and with the help of Bob Pike of the Creative Film Society and William Moritz, she had new safety negatives made for some 80 films, many of them made in the 1920s before she had known Oskar. She received one grant, from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which allowed her and her daughter Barbara to restore an unfinished film of Oskar's from the 1940s.

Elfriede traveled widely, lecturing with Oskar's paintings and films at such venues as the Montreal Expo of 1967, the Berlin Film Festival, Museum of Modern Art in New York, Telluride, and the Venice Biennale 1982, as well as major animation festivals such as Ottawa and Zagreb. She received a Gold Medal from the President of Italy, and lifetime achievement awards from the Royal Academy of the Netherlands, the International animation society ASIFA and Women in Film. She was a juror for the Montpellier Festival of Abstract Film and the American Film Institute. She published half-a-dozen articles in magazines and art exhibition catalogues, and appeared in several television documentaries, including the CBS Camera III profile of Oskar Fischinger, the British Abstract Cinema, and the German Longing for Color about the development of various film color processes in the 1930s. She also gave generously of her time and support to things in Los Angeles: hosting many traveling filmmakers and scholars at her home in Laurel Canyon and later Long Beach; supporting Filmex, Theatre Vanguard, The Visual Music Alliance, The Goethe Institute (where she performed on Oskar's Lumigraph color organ); visiting classes at UCLA and Cal Arts; participating in symposiums at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Long Beach Museum, and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others. She was bright and active until her last days -- helping to mount a show of Oskar's paintings at the Jack Rutberg Gallery; travelling to New York in November 1998 for Anthology Film Archive's "First Light" festival of abstract experimental film; attending screenings at the Goethe Institute of Baerbel Neubauer's films, and of Fritz Lang's Woman in the Moon, for which Oskar had done special effects.

Elfriede died quietly in her sleep at her home in Long Beach on the night of May 13, 1999. She is survived by two sons and two daughters, as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She was buried next to her husband in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City on May 19, 1999.

William Moritz teaches film and animation history at the California Institute of the Arts.