As a story goes, this director, who was behind some of Hollywood’s most path-breaking films across genres, helmed debuts of many who would become its biggest stars, and won Oscars galore in his half-a-century career, was once asked by an ignorant studio executive what he had done. Fred Zinnemann just answered: “Sure. You first”.
The acclaimed director however said he had spent years trying to disown the story, which he said he had been told by his colleague Billy Wilder about himself. But there is no doubt that even a brief sketch of the career of Zinnemann, whose 110th birth anniversary is on Saturday, is impressive.
Preferring to work on authentic locations and with many non-actors among the cast to achieve a sense of realism, he has to his credit one of the most iconic Westerns ever, despite “High Noon” (1952), starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, breaking all the stereotypes that were (or would continue to be) associated with the genre.
“From Here to Eternity” (1953) has the challenging task of depicting soldiers’ life in peace, “The Nun’s Story” (1959) about a young woman (Audrey Hepburn in one of her best performances) having to decide if she is fitted for religious life, “A Man for All Seasons” (1964) about a king’s adviser who has to choose between his convictions and his life, and “The Day of the Jackal” (1973), a chase to stop an assassination which holds the audience despite they already knowing it was unsuccessful.
Zinnheimer however came to prominence with “The Seventh Cross” (1944), one of the first cinematic depictions of Nazi concentration camps – though much before their true level of depravity and inhumanity was known. Starring Spencer Tracy as a political prisoner who breaks out of one such camp and finding most of his associates disown him while some strangers help him, it set a recurring motif of Zinnemann’s work – stories of principled but lone heroes facing adversity.
Born to a Jewish family in what was then the Habsburg Empire, Zinnemann said in his memoirs “A Life in the Movies: An Autobiography” that when “growing up, I wanted to be a musician, but fortunately I discovered in time that I had no musical talent. Then I tried law, and I am not sorry I did because it taught me a method of thinking…”
After getting his law degree, he convinced his parents to let him study film-making which he did in Paris and Berlin before moving to the US in 1929 and reaching Hollywood the next year. One of his first jobs there was as an extra in “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930).
Beginning with short films, he directed a couple of B-grade mystery thrillers in 1942 before he got his break with “The Seventh Cross”. His next notable film was “The Search” (1948) about a young Czech boy freed from Auschwitz searching for his mother across post-war Europe, a topic made more poignant by the fact that Zinnemann had found that both his parents had perished in the Holocaust.
Though his film oeuvre comprises a little less than 50 films though only 25 of them are credited, he has also to his credit the introductory films of the likes of Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Montgomery Clift and Meryl Streep. Of the 18 different actors nominated for Oscars in his films, a third of them including Gary Cooper, Frank Sinatra, Vanessa Redgrave won while Ivan Jandl, who played the boy in “The Search”, was conferred a Special Juvenile Academy Award.
Zinnemann once said he just liked to do films that are “positive in the sense that they deal with the dignity of human beings and have something to say about oppression, not necessarily in a political way but in a human way”, but also that would always think of himself as a Hollywood director since he believed “in making films that will please a mass audience, and not just in making films that express my own personality or ideas”.
What more could you want?
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at email@example.com)
This is published unedited from the IANS feed.