Following the end of a fiery and passionate love affair with Alma Mahler, Austrian Expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka enlists to fight in the First World War. During battle he suffers serious wounds, and as the medics rush the injured Kokoschka through the forests of the Russian front, he is overtaken by a fever of fleeting memories and visions. Playful, imaginative and audacious, I’m OK explores the visible and invisible wounds of heartbreak and trauma.
Directed, edited and animated by British artist Elizabeth Hobbs (The Emperor, The True Story of Sawney Beane, G-AAAH), I’m OK boasts a lively, operatic soundtrack and beautiful, handmade ink and paint drawings, created instinctively by the artist under a rostrum camera. Inspired by Kokoschka’s art, the images act like faint memories as they take shape and find form and being—before vanishing as rapidly as they’re born.
A co-production between Animate Projects, the National Film Board of Canada and Elizabeth Hobbs, I’m OK continues Hobbs’ unique fascination with both handmade techniques and unusual, yet very real, historical figures.
Following the end of a stormy love affair, Expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka enlists in the First World War. After suffering serious injuries in battle, he experiences a series of memories and visions as medics transport him through the forests of the Russian front. Playful and imaginative, I’m OK explores the wounds of heartbreak and trauma.
How did you come across Oscar Kokoschka? What was it about him that caught your interest?
I first came across him during a residency that I was awarded by the Tricky Women Film Festival in Vienna. I saw his work in the museums in Vienna. Then I found a photograph of his Alma doll, a life-sized doll of her that he commissioned Hermine Moos to make for him. I began to research his relationship with Alma Mahler and realized that the prints and plays that he created about their relationship were much more fascinating than the doll, which I think represented a mad moment, and perhaps a moment that could be left behind.
Did you know there was a story there or was that something you stumbled upon later?
At first I liked the mixture of themes that emerged for Kokoschka between 1912–1915: their extremely passionate relationship combined with his experience in the war, and then I found a wealth of drawn and written material that he had generated about that time, which created the story of sorts.
Did Kokoschka’s art influence the look of the film?
Yes, very much so. The film is a dialogue between his work and mine, in particular his lithographic prints and drawings, but also his diaries, plays and his autobiography. I used elements of his work or writing as a starting point for each shot or scene; I would draw it many times to bring it to life, until it became something.
What happened to Kokoschka after his recovery?
He led a long and prolific life as a great artist. His paintings and prints are collected by museums and galleries all over the world. He didn’t always live in Austria, he was labelled a degenerate artist by the Nazis in 1934, so he moved to Prague, then to Scotland for a bit, eventually settling in Switzerland, where he died in 1980.
Who was Alma Mahler? She’s clearly someone who had a potent effect on men!
Yes, I think she did, all her life! She’s a really interesting person. Alma Mahler (1879–1964) was a composer in her own right but had to give this up when she became the wife of Gustav Mahler, with whom she had two children. When she met Kokoschka, she had just become Mahler’s widow. Following her three-year affair with Kokoschka, she also married Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel.
While the film obviously deals with heartbreak, it also reflects on what we now call PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and how traumatic the war experience is on people. Was that something you wanted to also touch upon in the film?
The narrative timeline is maybe too short for PTSD, and perhaps the film is too! But I was trying to conjure up some of the chaos and drama of that moment for Kokoschka, where many intense experiences and feelings collided at once.
There seems to be a lot of improvisation or instinctual creativity in your work. That obviously involves a lot of risk, yet I imagine it can be quite liberating?
Yes, that’s how I like to work. All the magic happens under the rostrum camera, in the moment, with the materials. I start with a drawing, a sentence or an action, animate for as long as I can until I run out of time or ideas, then I cut everything together, review what I’ve got and have another go. There’s a lot of material that doesn’t get used, but I work really quickly, so I don’t think it takes too much longer than making a plan and getting it right the first time.
You are among the fewer and fewer animators who take a sort of “old school” hand-made approach to animating. You’ve worked with typewriters, stamps, butterfly prints and, with I’m OK, (wet) ink drawings. Can you talk about what led to this love of “old school” animating and why you continue working that way?
My background is as an artist working with printmaking, so I like to be able to work with materials, and to be able to explore their properties and the potential for creating movement in non-traditional ways. So although the work is undeniably old-school, or traditionally captured, I’m always looking for playful new ways to make animation with limited means.
You’ve worked with and without dialogue. With I’m OK, you have no dialogue and really rely on the images and the powerful opera score. Do you find it more challenging to have to rely on the power of the images to convey a story/tone to the audience?
Yes, it’s certainly a new challenge to make a film without dialogue, because in previous films I have so enjoyed conveying humour through words. I’m OK is a different kind of film, because it’s about love and war, and about an artist, so his works, combined with the music, meant that words weren’t so necessary in this film.
You chose opera music for the film (in addition to a brief, light musical interlude). Why did you go with opera?
In an autobiographical record that I found in the Oskar Kokoschka archive, Kokoschka had identified Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice as one of his inspirations. He also made many prints about his relationship with Alma on the theme of Orpheus, so I found the link that I needed. As well as that, the music captured the drama and the passion, whilst also giving Alma a voice.
All of your films deal with these rather quirky periods and people from history. Where did that interest come from and why does it fascinate you so much? I also wonder what you hope the audience will come away with after they meet these forgotten people.
In most of the films, I have enjoyed starting with a real episode or person, whether they are well known like Bonaparte, or not, like Imperial Provisor Frombald, and then imagined a new angle or theme for them. To my mind, if offers the benefit of having an element of truth to hold on to, but with opportunities for humour, and variations or new perspectives. Kokoschka is well known in Europe, so perhaps it’s a chance to spread his renown further afield, but also to enjoy a female artist’s perspective on his work.
Using Oscar Kokoschka’s writing, paintings and prints as her inspiration, Elizabeth Hobbs worked directly under a rostrum camera using ink and paint on paper, capturing the frames while the ink was still wet. In editing these shots together and re-shooting where necessary, the narrative for the film slowly took shape.
Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980) was an Austrian Expressionist artist and playwright. His paintings, prints and plays were significant for their stylistic boldness and their deep psychological insight into his characters expressed through colour.
In 1912, Kokoschka, then deemed the enfant terrible of the Viennese art scene, began an intense love affair with Alma Mahler, the widow of Gustav Mahler and a composer in her own right. Alma Mahler was a controversial figure in her time. She inspired the passionate love and devotion of an array of artists, including Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, Gustav Klimt and Franz Werfel. Mahler was once described by biographer Françoise Giroud as “a goddess who made a god of each of her lovers.”
The affair between Kokoschka and Mahler was described by Kokoschka as “the most unquiet time of my life.” When they weren’t making love, Kokoschka was painting her. One of his most acclaimed paintings, The Bride of the Wind (or The Tempest, 1913), is a self-portrait of the artist lying alongside his lover.
Kokoschka’s passion for Mahler soon became more controlling and obsessive. Finally, Mahler ended their relationship. In 1915, the heartbroken artist enlisted in the First World War, where he suffered a bullet to the head and a bayonet wound to the chest.
In 1934, Kokoschka was deemed a degenerate by the Nazis, so he and his wife, Olda, fled Austria for Prague. He became a British citizen in 1946 before finally settling in Switzerland in 1947, where he lived for the rest of his life.
Directed and animated by
Music excerpts from
Dance of the Furies
by Christoph Willibald von Gluck
from Orfeo ed Euridice
Courtesy of Countdown Media
Che fiero momento
by Christoph Willibald von Gluck
from Orfeo ed Euridice
Courtesy of Hungaroton
with the permission of PIERRE YVES DRAPEAU
Produced with the support of
ARTS COUNCIL ENGLAND
ANGLIA RUSKIN UNIVERSITY
Erinnerung – ein Film mit Oskar Kokoschka
Courtesy of Filmarchiv Austria
ROSALINA DI SARIO
ABIGAIL ADDISON (ANIMATE PROJECTS)
JELENA POPOVIĆ (NFB)
GARY THOMAS (ANIMATE PROJECTS)
MICHAEL FUKUSHIMA (NFB)