Optical Poems by Oskar Fischinger, the Avant-Garde Animator Hated by Hitler, Dissed by Disney

At a time when much of animation was consumed with little anthropomorphized animals sporting white gloves, Oskar Fischinger went in a completely different direction. His work is all about dancing geometric shapes and abstract forms spinning around a flat featureless background. Think of a Mondrian or Malevich painting that moves, often in time to the music. Fischinger’s movies have a mesmerizing elegance to them. Check out his 1938 short An Optical Poem above. Circles pop, sway and dart across the screen, all in time to Franz Liszt’s 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody. This is, of course, well before the days of digital. While it might be relatively simple to manipulate a shape in a computer, Fischinger’s technique was decidedly more low tech. Using bits of paper and fishing line, he individually photographed each frame, somehow doing it all in sync with Liszt’s composition. Think of the hours of mind-numbing work that must have entailed.

Born in 1900 near Frankfurt, Fischinger trained as a musician and an architect before discovering film. In the 1930s, he moved to Berlin and started producing more and more abstract animations that ran before feature films. They proved to be popular too, at least until the National Socialists came to power. The Nazis were some of the most fanatical art critics of the 20th Century, and they hated anything non representational. The likes of Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka and Wassily Kandinsky among others were written off as “degenerate.” (By stark contrast, the CIA reportedly loved Abstract Expressionism, but that’s a different story.) Fischinger fled Germany in 1936 for the sun and glamour of Hollywood.



The problem was that Hollywood was really not ready for Fischinger. Producers saw the obvious talent in his work, and they feared that it was too ahead of its time for broad audiences. “[Fischinger] was going in a completely different direction than any other animator at the time,” said famed graphic designer Chip Kidd in an interview with NPR. “He was really exploring abstract patterns, but with a purpose to them — pioneering what technically is the music video.”

Fischinger’s most widely seen American work was the section in Walt Disney’s Fantasia set to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Disney turned his geometric forms into mountain peaks and violin bows. Fischinger was apoplectic. “The film is not really my work,” Fischinger later reflected. “Rather, it is the most inartistic product of a factory. …One thing I definitely found out: that no true work of art can be made with that procedure used in the Disney studio.” Fischinger didn’t work with Disney again and instead retreated into the art world.

There he found admirers who were receptive to his vision. John Cage, for one, considers the German animator’s experiments to be a major influence on his own work. Cage recalls his first meeting with Fischinger in an interview with Daniel Charles in 1968.

One day I was introduced to Oscar Fischinger who made abstract films quite precisely articulated on pieces of traditional music. When I was introduced to him, he began to talk with me about the spirit, which is inside each of the objects of this world. So, he told me, all we need to do to liberate that spirit is to brush past the object, and to draw forth its sound. That’s the idea which led me to percussion.

You can find excerpts of other Fischinger films over at Vimeo.

Optical Poems will be added to our list of Animations, part of our collection: 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrowAnd check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring one new drawing of a vice president with an octopus on his head daily.  The Veeptopus store is here.


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  • Neighbor says:

    “At a time when much of animation was consumed with little anthropomorphized animals sporting white gloves”nnPlease educate yourself about the history of animation before pontificating on the subject. Disney’s tightly controlled cutesy direction was just as new as Fischinger’s at the time. Tons of experimental animation was going on in the 1930’s, he was not working in isolation nor the only working totally abstractly. In the last 100+ years the periods of time that fit your description were in the minority, yet anything that doesn’t fit the description above (cutesy film for kids) is constantly portrayed as new, radical, shocking, something people couldn’t understand or appreciate. It’s ridiculous- enough already. While experimental animators may have been forced under the radar for a time, this was not the case in the 1930’s, when abstract offerings by people like Fischinger and Mary Ellen Bute regularly opened for major studio films.nnIt is past time for animation be recognized as an art form that deserves its own scholarly tradition of criticism.

  • CVM says:

    what happened to our earlier comment? feel free to edit out the part about wrong aspect ratio, since that’s been corrected. thanks, CVM

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