Anderson, Erica (1914–1976)

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Anderson, Erica (1914–1976)

Austrian-born American filmmaker who influenced the medium of documentaries. Born Erika Kellner in Vienna, Austria, on August 8, 1914; died in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in September 1976; daughter of Eduard Kellner and Ilona Rosenberg Kellner; married Dr. Lawrence Collier Anderson (a British physician), in June 1940 (divorced 1942).

Made documentaries of important 20th-century figures such as Grandma Moses , Henry Moore, and Albert Schweitzer.

Erika Kellner was born in Vienna, Austria, on August 8, 1914, to Eduard and Ilona Rosenberg Kellner . Despite the economic chaos that descended upon the Habsburg Empire after its dissolution in 1918, Erika grew up in a home that was emotionally and economically stable. Her father was a physician who wanted both of his daughters to choose medicine as their careers. Erika's older sister Anita took pre-medical courses but terminated her studies when she married a doctor. Meanwhile Erika became interested in photography after she received her first camera. When the depression hit Central Europe in the early 1930s, she decided not to attend the university. Instead, she worked in a photography studio by day and took advanced classes in photographic theory and practice at night.

Throughout the 1930s, Nazism became increasingly dominant in Austria, and in 1936 Erika's parents immigrated to the United States while she moved to London. Working in picture galleries, she continued to take photographs in her free time. In London, Erika, who by now had changed the spelling of her name to Erica, met and married Dr. Lawrence Collier Anderson, a British physician, in June 1940.

While Erica was in London, her father, no longer young, experienced great difficulties in resuming his medical career in New York City. Her parents wrote often about their desperate financial and emotional situation, and Erica grew increasingly concerned about them. Indifferent to the danger of an Atlantic Ocean filled with German U-Boats, she left her husband and joined her parents in New York City.

As soon as she was settled in New York, Anderson enrolled in the New York Institute of Photography to continue her film studies. At the same time, she took a job with a small firm, United Specialists, quickly proving to her superiors just how multitalented she was. Within a year, she earned enough to support her parents. Anderson was divorced in 1942, not long after her new career was established. For the next three years, she produced documentary films for United Specialists, a shoestring firm with an impressive name but little else. She not only shot films, but also researched them, wrote the scripts, and then matched, cut, and edited them for release. Anderson was also the first cinematographer to work in color at the firm. The documentaries she created during this period include: They Need Not Die (for the American Red Cross), The Capitol (for the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs), and Animals in the Service of Man (for the American Humane Society).

In 1944, Anderson resigned from United Specialists to do freelance work, a courageous and perhaps reckless decision, as she had no capital. She quickly landed an important job producing a documentary film on the Girl Scouts of America. During the next few years, her commissions included films of General Dwight Eisenhower's visit to New York, the Duke of Windsor's stay in Washington, D.C., and a travelogue of Pennsylvania for the Standard Oil Company. Anderson also produced a documentary of the exhibit of the works of the British sculptor Henry Moore at New York's Museum of Modern Art, which was released in 1947 as Henry Moore, Sculptor. Another major work was the 1948 film French Tapestries Visit America, which documented an exhibition of magnificent tapestries at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. This work was particularly effective because early French music was used for the soundtrack.

In 1947, Erica Anderson decided to interview Grandma Moses , the famous folk painter who had produced her canvases only in extreme old age. This color film, with script and narration by Archibald MacLeish, was finally released to rave reviews in 1950. Over the next few years, Anderson combined her bread-and-butter work of producing films for corporate and industrial sponsors with more artistically oriented projects. One of the most important of these was a documentary about the controversial Swiss psychologist and student of myths, Carl Gustav Jung. Anderson showed Jung working at his studio in Bollingen and with patients in Zurich.

In 1952, Anderson interviewed Dr. Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) both in his home province of Alsace and in his mission hospital in Lambaréné, French Equatorial Africa (modernday Republic of Gabon). At first, Schweitzer was reluctant to participate in a film project, but Anderson's Viennese charm worked its magic on the venerable medical missionary. During five trips to Africa, Anderson collected a large body of film that was released in January 1957. This documentary received generally positive reviews, although some critics noted that the quality of color was often uneven. Anderson's visual biography was a reverential work that revealed the essence of Schweitzer's powerful yet aloof personality.

While in the process of filming Schweitzer in his jungle hospital, Anderson published a collection of photographs that was also well received by critics. Some of her conversations with him, as well as recordings of him playing the organ, were released at the time by Columbia Records. Writing in the New York Herald Tribune, Herbert Kupferberg praised Anderson for capturing the "sunlight and shadows of the strange world" where Schweitzer built his jungle hospital complex. Anderson's work came to international attention because of her Schweitzer documentary. Later, when Schweitzer was criticized as a racist who harbored colonial attitudes toward the natives, her films began to be seen as apologies for Schweitzer's medical and cultural paternalism and faded from view. Schweitzer brought modern medical care to large numbers of people who had previously lived and suffered without it, and in recent years his contributions have begun to be reassessed in terms of the times in which he lived and worked. A comparable reassessment of the film achievements of Erica Anderson has yet to take place.

Erica Anderson never again found a subject comparable to Albert Schweitzer to film. She moved from New York City to the Berkshires in 1965. She died at her home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in September 1976, having made significant contributions to the evolution of the modern documentary film.


Anderson, Erica. The World of Albert Schweitzer. NY: Harper and Brothers, 1955.

——. The Schweitzer Album. NY: Harper & Row, 1965.

"Anderson, Erica (Collier)," in Current Biography 1957. NY: H.W. Wilson, pp. 15–17.

Ennis, Thomas W. "Erica Anderson, 62, a Film Maker and Schweitzer Associate, Is Dead," in The New York Times Biographical Service. September 1976, p. 1223.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Anderson, Erica (1914–1976)

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