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December 2nd, 2008
Biography: Fred Zinnemann

Biography by Gerd Gemünden
Professor of German Studies, Film and Media Studies, and Comparative Literature
Dartmouth College

(b. Vienna 1907 – d. Los Angeles 1997)

Fred Zinnemann

Photo from Zinnemann’s application for U.S. citizenship.
Click to see the application.

Born as Alfred Zinnemann. Cameramen and director. Trained as both a violinist and a lawyer, Zinnemann moved to America in 1937 after working on Menschen am Sonntag (1929), in Germany and The Wave (1934) in Mexico. At MGM the young Austrian directed short subjects for several years, winning his first Academy Award for That Mothers Might Live (1938), as well as directing a series of b-features (Little Mr. Jim and My Brother Talks to Horses, both 1946). His 1944 anti-Nazi film The Seventh Cross, after Anna Seghers’ novel, stands out as one of the better films in that popular wartime gene. After his contract expired in 1948, he became a free director, working with producers such as Stanley Kramer, Buddy Adler, and Henry Blanke. With The Search (1948), largely shot on location in Germany, Zinnemann used a neo-realist style to probe the aftermath of war. Other films from this period also investigate post-war trauma: the noir Act of Violence (1949) and The Men (1950, with Marlon Brando in his cinematic debut) deal with the alienation experienced by crippled war veterans.

Zinnemann’s lasting fame rests on two extraordinary films— High Noon (1952), the now classic western starring Gary Cooper as a soon-to-be-retired marshal, and From Here to Eternity (1953), which won eight Academy Awards, including best picture, direction, supporting actor (Frank Sinatra), supporting actress (Donna Reed), screenplay, and cinematography. His later work includes Oklahoma! (1955), The Nun’s Story (1959), The Sundowners (1960), and A Man for All Seasons (1966) which won Oscars for best picture, actor, screenplay, and direction. A trained cameraman, Zinnemann’s films are remarkable for their effective use of visual composition, yet he never developed a personal style and was therefore largely ignored by the auteur-dominated criticism of the 1960s and 70s. Instead, his films share a focus on how people behave in difficult situations, and how their character becomes their destiny.

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