< Return to Adherents.com's Guide to Movies
< Return to Famous Jews

The Religious Affiliation of Director
Fred Zinnemann

Fred Zinnemann is an Austrian-born Jew. Based on his autobiographical writing and writing about him, Zinnemann clearly had great respect for religion and spirituality. A large proportion of his films were about overtly religious subject matter. It appears he was a devoted family man with a personally ethical, morally conservative lifestyle. Zinnemann was married to Renee Bartlett (a Catholic) from 1936 until his death in 1997. This was a remarkably stable and long-lasting marriage compared to many of fellow film directors. There is little indication that he was a religiously observant Jew (nor have I seen anything to suggest that he wasn't). His primary interest was film.

Zinnemann's films about Jewish characters and strongly themes include: The Seventh Cross (1944); The Search (1948) and Julia (1977).

Zinnemann is the director of the movie Julia (1977), which is ranked #36 on Bernheimer's list of the "Fifty Greatest Jewish Movies" of all time. Source: Kathryn Bernheimer. The 50 Greatest Jewish Movies: A Critic's Ranking of the Very Best. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing (1998). Most of the films on this list were made by Jewish filmmakers.

Interestingly enough, Zinnemann was also the director of A Man for All Seasons (1966), which appears on many lists of the greatest Catholic movies of all time, including William Park's list. Source: William Park. "The Fifty Best Catholic Movies of All Time", Crisis 15, no. 10 (March 1997): 82-91 (URL: http://www.catholic.net/rcc/Periodicals/Crisis/1997-11/f8.html). Zinnemann's film The Nun's Story (1959) was made with the cooporation of the Catholic Church, much of it filmed on location in Rome, and was widely praised by most Catholic publications.

Zinnemann's wife Renee Bartlett was a Catholic who had attended a Catholic convent school for many years as a child. (Source: Fred Zinnemann: An Autobiography, page 163).

Fred Zinnemann is included on the list of Jewish American film directors on Wikipedia's "List of Jewish American show business figures" page at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Jewish_American_show_business_figures (viewed 25 June 2005).

From: Fred Zinnemann, Fred Zinnemann: An Autobiography: A Life in the Movies, Charles Scribner's Sons: New York, NYC (1992), page 11:

In Austria, discrimination [against Jews] had been part of life since time immemorial. It was always been there -- oppressive, often snide, sometimes hostile, seldom violent. It was in the air and one sensed it at all levels, in school, at work and in society. A Jew was an outsider, a threat to the country's culture. Born in Austria, and raised as an Austrian, he would still never truly belong.

An Austrian brand of Fascism had now begun to flourish; the Nazis were but a cloud on the horizon but people no longer laughed at Hitler. His book, Mein Kampf became obsesive reading, a gospel for millions. Boys came to school with swastikas in their lapels. 'Aren't you ashamed?' I asked one. 'I'm proud of it,' he said.

In 1927 no one could have imagined what was to come.

Fred Zinnemann: An Autobiography, page 7:
Born in Austria in 1907, I had always dreamt of becoming a musician; but as a teenager faced with the choice of a profession, I soon found out that I had hardly any talent at all. Coming from a family of physicians, I might have tried to follow in my father's footsteps, but there was clearly no sense in it: Vienna, where I had grown up during World War One, was now the capital of a tiny, defeated, impoverished country, overflowing with young doctors without patients, who spent long hours in coffee houses studying newspapers or playing chess.

Vienna was a somber place in those early post-war years. The Allied blockade had done its work: there had been sawdust in our bread, hardly any milk, and many kids were growing up with rickets and soft bones. It was only after the Armistice in 1918 that food relief had been brought from America by a large group of Quakers headed by Herbert Hoover. For years afterwards we regarded all American visitors as our saviors, looking upon them in awe and fascination. To this day I find it difficult to leave food on my plate at the end of a meal.

As in many well-educated and financially successful Jewish families, Zinnemann felt pressure to earn an advanced academic degree and excel professionally. From: Fred Zinnemann: An Autobiography, page 8:
It was, of course, considered absolutely necessary to have an academic degree and to be called 'Herr Doktor', no matter what one was a doctor of; in my case, the only practical answer seemed to be to study for a doctorate in law, which I duly tried and hated with a passion from the very first moment. In self-defense I spent as much time away from the university as I could get away with; instead of listening to boring lectures, I went to see the weeks' new movies...
Zinnemann's film The Seventh Cross (1943) was one of a small number of films he made that dealt with Nazis and Nazi oppression against Jews. In Zinnemann's autobiography, his chapter about The Seventh Cross mentions Nazis, but curiously never mentions "Jews" or "Judaism" by name. Zinnemann made a number of films about Jewish characters and situations, such as The Seventh Cross; The Search (1947) and Julia (1977). The book includes a number of photographs of Nazis and Jews in concentration camps or ghettos -- including Neville Chamberlain's "Peace for our time," a photograph of a massive and grand Nazi rally -- so these topics could not have been far from the filmmaker's mind. Yet, curiously, Zinnemann never seems to speak of his own experiences with or feelings about Judaism, or even refer to himself as Jewish. From: Fred Zinnemann: An Autobiography, page 49:
...I was fascinated by The Seventh Cross, a novel by Anna Seghers, who had escaped from Nazi Germany to Mexico. It took place in the pre-war years of the Nazi era and dealt with seven prisoners fleeing from a concentration camp, desperate to reach the Dutch border. The camp commandant had sworn that he would catch them and hang them from crosses put up in the barracks' yard.

Six men were caught, but the Seventh Cross remained empty.

Zinnemann discusses making The Search (1947), from Fred Zinnemann: An Autobiography, pages 63-66:
It was an enormous challenge to persuade the children to act in the picture. I told many groups that we needed their help to make a film which we hoped would be an aid to children all over the world, but that this would involve reviving painful memories. If they wanted to volunteer, well and good: if they didn't, that was perfectly OK. They all volunteered. They were mostly Jewish kids by that time. The others had returned to their countries, but the Jewish children had nowhere to go. They became enormously tense and very, very upset when we started shaving their heads, putting the old concentration camp rags on them and photographing them with identifying numbers. At the same time we could see what they would bring to the film...

The same thing happened later; many children knew that the Nazis had disguised their mobile gas chambers so that they appeared to be like ambulances. When they were locked into a Red Cross vehicle during one of our scenes their hysteria was horrendously real.

This was also the time when Jewish kids were being formed into groups and gradually and secretly taken across the border to Italy. This activity had to be unofficial because of the still existing British blockade against Jewish immigrants into Palestine. The kids were guided by emissaries from the Jewish Agency, which later became a part of the Government of Israel.

Fred Zinnemann: An Autobiography, page 76:
In May 1948 the British Mandate for Palestine came to an end. Survivors of the Holocaust were streaming into the country, which under the Turkish regime had been devastated by centuries of neglect and was now being reclaimed by earlier Jewish settlers. There was now a new hope for them which, at the same time, was a cause of enormous alarm to the Arabs. It was as if two people were trying to sit on the same chair at the same time, each claiming it to be his sole property.

No sooner had the United Nations recognized the State of Israel than the first Arab-Israeli war began. Enormous events were impending; after the experience of the UN Displaced Persons' camps in Germany I felt' a strong need to witness what was going to happen next, and perhaps to make a film continuing the style of The Search. Monty Clift seemed to feel the same way and wanted to come along. My friend Reuven Dafni, then the Consul of Israel in the western United States, gave me the first visa and we were off. Joined by a talented young writer, Stewart Stern, we flew from Rome in an old DC-3 of Trans-Caribbean Airways, which was then the only airline available to civilians wishing to enter the country.

We saw history made before our eyes; we saw it but could hardly believe it. We saw Leonard Bernstein conducting a concert in Jerusalem, which was then under partial siege by the Jordanian Army (the Arab Legion) still holding the Old City. We saw Syrian tanks stopped in their tracks at the last moment inside the Degania kibbutz, which they had penetrated.

We saw the lawn of another kibbutz, Negba, the day after the long siege had been lifted. There, land mines were still being cleared and the kids were coming home after months of evacuation. During the siege the settlers had been under constant Egyptian artillery fire from a former police station - Iraq es Sueidan - a couple of miles away. They had lived underground, watering their common lawn at night, keeping it green as a sign of hope; the 'green lawn of Negba' had overnight become a national legend.

In the nearby Faluja Gap there had been a big battle; among the prisoners was an obscure lieutenant-colonel who became a historic figure a few years later: Abdul Nasser.

It was eerie to hear the Egyptian artillery booming away in the distance. Standing there at Nir'im one could not help but feel that in three thousand years nothing had changed, the enemy was still the same and the only thing that would ever change would be the cast of characters. (This was long before Sadat's journey to Israel, of course.)

In the end nothing came of the plan to make a picture. What we had seen was so much larger than life it would have looked like pure propaganda. No one would have believed it.

Regarding his film Teresa (1950), from Fred Zinnemann: An Autobiography, pages 86-87:
The year 1950 was a Holy Year in Rome - an event that happens every twenty-five years. The great doors of St Peter's were open, the town was bursting with pilgrims from all over the world, ecstatic yet careful with every penny. They were looked upon with scorn and irritation by the Romans unable to make money off the pellegrini (pilgrims). One could hardly move in the streets; beds were scarce and hospices overflowed.

We were quartered in a Renaissance palace, once the property of Lucrezia Borgia. It now belonged to the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre (Cavalieri di Santo Sepolcro); to relieve the congestion they had converted it into a temporary hotel. It was a stone's throw from the Vatican and connected to it - so it was said - by an underground passage, now blocked up, so that Pope Alexander VI could visit his daughter, Lucrezia, in privacy. Luckily, I found myself occupying Lucrezia's own apartment. I worked in the huge living room and slept in her bedroom, its ceiling decorated with luscious frescoes, its window overlooking the Tiber. (It was whispered that the bodies of her many lovers were eventually thrown into the river through that window.)

Five or six times a day, the door would suddenly open and a group of Monsignori would enter, unannounced and armed with opera glasses, wanting to inspect the famous frescoes. On the first day a maid kept coming in saying that I had rung and asking what were my wishes. When I told her, the third time, that I had not called her and that it must have been Lucrezia who had rung, a sudden noisy crack and a yellow puff of smoke came from the fuse box, right on cue. It was eerie.

An anecdote about working with actress Ethel Waters while filming The Member of the Wedding (identified as A Member of the Wedding by Zinnemann), from Fred Zinnemann: An Autobiography, page 114:
Julie and Brandon were new to the screen but had very little trouble adapting to it. As for Ethel, she was so firmly wedded to her mechanics that she needed enormous persuasion to make a change (for instance, to take only two steps on some occasion when she had taken three steps on stage). Sometimes, when I insisted, she would look heavenward and say, 'God is my director!' (How do you follow that one?) But she was warm, loving and generosity itself. No longer young, she would sit in her dressing room between set-ups, sometimes humming softly to herself, sometimes playing records on her portable phonograph - her own songs, mostly.
About the filming of The Nun's Story, from Fred Zinnemann: An Autobiography, pages 155-163:
...Audrey Hepburn and I did find ourselves making a film together a couple of years later. It came about in this way. During the mid-1950s, Kathryn Hulme's novel The Nun's Story, based on the true story of a missionary nun who after seventeen years had left her order, caused quite a stir. Miss Hulme had been the chief of a UNRRA camp for displaced persons in post-war Germany and the ex-nun had wound up as a nurse in the same place. They became close friends and Kathryn eventually wrote the bestselling book about her. The theme was stated by Hillel two thousand years ago: 'If I am not myself, who will be for me? And if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?'

The book had been sent to me by Gary Cooper who thought that I might find it interesting. He was right. I became engrossed in the idea of dramatizing this woman's enormous problem of conscience. Unhappily, my enthusiasm was not shared by any of the studios. The official word was 'Who wants to see a documentary about how to become a nun?' That summed it up; but when Audrey Hepburn said she wanted to do it the studios suddenly became intensely interested.

With the exception of Ingrid Bergman there was at that time no star as incandescent as Audrey. She was shy, coltish and intelligent; she looked delicate, but there was a hint of iron in the jawline that signified a stubborn will. I thought she would be ideal; and so, now, did everyone else.

The Catholic Churcn was rather more cautious than the enthusiastic Jack Warner, whose studio now undertook to finance the film. Two things about the project worried them. One was the fact that a professed nun would leave her order after seventeen years - it was not good for recruiting, as one Monsignor put it. The other problem was that we might be tempted to exploit the implicit attraction between the nun and the worldly, cynical, charming Ur Fortunati (played by Peter Finch) whom she assists in the Belgian Congo. The Church did not turn us down flat; they were always polite but enormously reserved. The first task, then, was to establish our good faith as convincingly as possible.

All film companies approaching the Catholic Church for assistance are put in touch with the Cinema Office which assigns someone - often a Dominican priest - to work with them. The Dominican Order is the order of preachers and as such it is strong on dogma and not particularly flexible. In our case they were extremely thorough in scrutinizing our shooting script. They went through it line by line and objected, for instance, to a speech by Edith Evans: 'The life of a nun is a life against nature.' Our advisers said, 'You mustn't say that. You have to say "... a life above nature ..."' More than two hours were spent in discussion of that one word. I remember saying that I'd always thought religious life was a struggle and one couldn't get above nature by simply putting on a habit. We went back and forth without making progress until a Jesuit friend heard about it. He said, 'Why can't you say "in many ways, it's a life against nature"?' and so, with the Jesuitical addition of 'in many ways', into the screenplay it went.

Finally the approval was given. The production would be based in Rome, with locations in Stanleyville, in what was then the Belgian Congo. This meant that we would be away from home for at least eighteen months, breaking contact with Tim who was now a student at Kenyon College. Ours had been a close-knit family; this was the beginning of a long, worrying separation while Renee and I had a lovely time in Africa, Australia and Europe, with only brief intervals at home.

The real story had happened in Belgium, in Ghent, in a large order of missionary nuns devoted to teaching and nursing. The colony they were posted to was, of course, the enormous Belgian Congo, today's Zaire; so a lot of the work had to do with tropical medicine. That order did not want to know about us; it feared that the film would rake up a scandal well within the memory of many of its members. In the early days, when we asked to see the interior of one of the convents, all we would be shown - very politely - was a printing press or a workshop: we were not to be admitted to the daily routine, much less to the inner life of convents.

Eventually, and thanks mainly to the efforts made by certain Jesuits and Assumptionists, caution gave way to trust and finally to most generous help without which the film never could have been made. We were granted long discussions with many nuns, covering endless subjects. I remember that most of them seemed to agree on one thing: that of the three vows they all must take - poverty, chastity and obedience - the hardest to keep was the last. Detachment from one's individual will was the most difficult thing of all. This was the great problem for Sister Luke (Audrey) and in the end she lost her fight to achieve that instant, unquestioning obedience. This was the cause of her failure as a nun and of her survival as an independent person.

One of the French religious orders eventually gave us permission to have each of our key actresses stay in a convent for several days, going through the entire ritual of the day starting with the first prayers at 5.30 a.m. I stashed my 'nuns' away at different convents, each one separately, Audrey Hepburn in one convent, Edith Evans in another, Peggy Ashcroft in a third, and so on. Making the daily rounds at 10.00 a.m. to see how they were doing, I'd arrive in the warmth of a taxi (it was mid-January in Paris, the winter was intensely cold and the convents were hardly heated) and all of them would come out of the cloisters absolutely purple with cold but fascinated by what they were involved in and very excited by the way they were getting prepared for their characters.

When you do a film like this you must have, at least, an external appreciation of what religious life is about. If we were making the film today it would have a different feeling; but even when we were shooting it, in 1958, it was already a period piece - beginning in the 1920s and ending during World War Two, with the nun leaving the convent and going off to work in the Belgian Underground ?a fairly lengthy time span. The problem of conveying it was complicated by the fact that a nun's habit does not allow much room to show the wearer getting older: so little of her is visible. In retrospect I can see that this is where I slipped up: in the end, when Audrey takes off her nun's habit, the passage of seventeen years of her life is not clearly enough suggested; it is as if time had stood still. Hardly a strand of gray hair when she shakes it free from the confining wimple. (There used to be, among hairdressers and make-up people, an automatic reflex to make the leading lady look beautiful, come hell or high water, hurricane or snowstorm, according to a hallowed tradition started by the founding fathers of the industry.)

Before shooting the Belgian location scenes in Bruges and going to the Congo, we moved into the Centre Sperimentale and Cinecitta Studios in Rome, where Alexander Trauner had designed a most realistic convent and chapel with convincing replicas of statues in Bruges, including an early Michelangelo 'Pieta'. It would have been difficult to distinguish it from the priceless original. We chose to do the interior photography in Rome so as to be near the Vatican and Santa Sabina, the Mother House of the Dominican Order who would continue as our advisers. With their help we undertook months of research and this turned out to be an interior voyage of discovery and an enormous personal experience.

Rome held another advantage. As it was understood that real nuns were not to be photographed, we needed to find extras for the large complicated ceremonial scenes of walking in procession, kneeling, bowing, and prostrating themselves - and doing it all more or less on cue; these women had to have special training. In the end, twenty dancers were borrowed from the ballet corps of the Rome Opera and were drilled by two Dominican nuns, one of them a university professor. For the nuns' close-ups, faces of great character and personality were needed. We found them mostly among the embassies and the Roman 'black' aristocracy: a lot of principessas and contessas would turn up in their Rolls-Royces or Mercedes at five in the morning. Dressed as nuns they looked marvelous. What some earned they donated to charity.

A tall nun was needed to play the assistant to Edith Evans, the Mother Superior, and to match her height. In the end my wife seemed to be the best choice; besides, she had been in a convent school for years years. She agreed and went to get her costume. Returning to the set after lunch I saw a tall nun whom I didn't recognize, smiling at me. It turned out to be none other than Renee.

Otherwise, I preferred not to use Roman Catholics in creative situations. It seemed important to keep an objective approach to the work, without the emotional involvement a faithful believer would bring to it, as this would create a private sentimental quality I wanted to avoid at all costs. Our writer, the playwright Robert Anderson, was a Protestant. Edith Evans and Audrey Hepburn were Christian Scientists; Peggy Ashcroft, who was an agnostic, projected a mystic quality to the amazement of the church people, who said she might have been a Mother Superior for many years. Edith Evans made an interesting comment that illustrated how she prepared for her part. She said that she took the character of the Reverend Mother from a line in the book: 'Her back never touched the back of the chair in which she was sitting.' She held herself absolutely straight to show the gap between the chair's back and her own. She built the whole character from that one phrase; it reminded me of the description of Prewitt at the start of the novel From Here to Eternity as being 'deceptively slim'. That was Monty Clift absolutely: once I had read that description I could never see anyone else in that part.

Looking at the film again, after more than twenty-five years, I am struck by the fine, firm line of development in Audrey's performance. The subconscious quality of independence is present in all her actions. When she comes running in late for the Service her haste betrays the inner calm she should be developing. Or the time when the girls are admitted as postulants and prostrate themselves on the floor in front of the Mother General, Audrey peeks out of one eye, curiosity getting the better of her. Her performance is put together out of dozens of moments of independence, such as the medical exam she is asked to fail in order to prove her humility.

More about Zinnemann's film The Nun's Story, from Fred Zinnemann: An Autobiography, page 171:
It seems strange to recall now, but to say that Warners were not entirely happy with the film would be an understatement. They thought it would flop. Well, they said, maybe Audrey will bring some people in. It was to open at Radio City Music Hall, a huge, cavernous theater. There was a custom in those days for the general manager to give a cocktail party for the makers of the incoming film. Ours felt like a wake until somebody happened to look out of the window and said, 'Look, there's a long line outside!' The mood changed instantly.

The film cost around three and a half million dollars, a large sum of money in those days. It has recouped it many times over. A local wit suggested a change of title: 'I Kicked My Habit'.

The reaction of the Church was by and large surprisingly good. There was even a very strong positive review on the official Vatican radio station. Of course, many religious groups disliked the film. Some felt it was antiquated and that things were not done like that any more, which is quite true: the film is a period piece of the late 1920s. Others said we had captured many details but that the essence of the religious experience had eluded us.

But although it is a story of a woman who loses the way to her vocation, the strongest memory I retain is the total faith of so many nuns we met and the marvelous serenity with which they went about their duties and devotions: in the middle of the Ituri rain forest, hobnobbing with pygmy friends of our guide, Father Cleuren, we came upon three nuns whose jeep had stalled. They belonged to a French missionary order, living under the most primitive conditions in the steaming forest and charged with providing medical care for the pygmies in the area. There was no question in their minds about ever going back to Europe. In the midst of the infernal heat all three looked as though they had just stepped out of a band-box, starched and shiny; except that one nun's sunglasses were cracked.

One of the hospitals nursing the terminal leper cases was run by an elderly Dutch nun who had been there for thirty-five years. She exemplified all the joy of life even though she spent her days among people who were dying. I asked her if she had ever been back to Europe. She looked at me in amazement: 'Why should I go back? I have never been sick.' That was the only possible reason that occurred to her. Such serenity, fastness of purpose and devotion were awesome qualities for an outsider to witness, especially for a movie director.

One year later very many of these extraordinary people were dead -- killed in the revolution that ended Belgian rule in the Congo.

From: Gene D. Phillips, Major Film Directors of the American and British Cinema, Associated University Presses: Cranbury, NJ (1990), page 121:
It was rather exception at the time for a major studio to end a picture wihtout the customary musical finale. Asked why he decided to dispense with the usual closing music for the film [The Nun's Story], Zinneman replied: "While Franz Waxman was scoring the picture I discovered that he had a deep dislike for the Catholic Church, and this was coming across in his music. The theme he wrote for the convent scenes would have been more appropriate for scenes set in a dungeon, so I got him to write another. For the finalscene he wrote an exultant theme to tend the film, and I removed it from the sound track. When Jack Warner asked me why I had done so, I answered his question with another: 'What kind of music do you want at the end of the picture? If the music expresses gloom, it will imply that it is too bad that Sister Luke left the convent. If it is joyful, people will think that Warner Brothers is encouraging nuns to leave the convent.' And so the movie ends in silence, the way I wanted it to."

Search Adherents.com

Custom Search
comments powered by Disqus

Webpage created 24 June 2005. Last modified 19 August 2005.
We are always striving to increase the accuracy and usefulness of our website. We are happy to hear from you. Please submit questions, suggestions, comments, corrections, etc. to: webmaster@adherents.com.