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OSCAR WINNER PETER ZINNER – THE ART OF EDITING

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The prestigious Oscars 2024 were recently awarded. Retracing the steps of previous editions, the list of winners of the Best Film Editing award includes the name of Peter Zinner, a naturalised US citizen from Austria.

Story of a legend

The recent Oscar night, the 96th edition of the world film industry’s most coveted award, essentially saw the triumph of two films, the dystopian Poor Things (by Yorgos Lanthimos) and the undisputed winner, the visionary Oppenheimer. Among the seven statuettes won by Christopher Nolan’s colossal was that for Best Film Editing, won by editor Jennifer Lame. And it is precisely of that statuette that we will speak in this article, because in the list of winners of the award for Best Film Editing is the name of Peter Zinner, a naturalised US citizen from Austria.

Born in Vienna in 1919, young Peter Zinner attended the Theresianum, graduating in 1937. Not even time to enrol and attend the Max Reinhardt seminary, an legend in German-speaking theatre, did the enactment of racial laws in 1938 cause the Zinner family, of Jewish religion, to flee the Austrian capital, first to the Philippines and then to the United States of America, West Coast. Here, in sunny Los Angeles, young Zinner began to work as a silent film pianist and, at the same time, as a taxi driver. His first approach to film editing would come a few years later, with his apprenticeship at the famous 20th Century Fox. Now, what exactly does film editing consist of? What does the editor do specifically?

As the word itself suggests, the editor is in charge of selecting the footage and the shots, to give substance to the film’s story, made up of images and sounds. In total synergy with the other professionals behind the camera, the film editor works side by side with the director, from the first editing to the final ‘cut’, i.e. the version that will then be distributed, and with the script at hand, for obvious reasons of narrative coherence.

All this would be put into practice by Peter Zinner not before a few more years of apprenticeship, this time as a sound editing assistant at Universal Studios. Unfortunately for him – but also for many others of his collegues – the counterpart of a fundamental experience in learning editing techniques is that of anonymity, as in several of his early sound and music editing jobs he was not credited (including Singin’ in the Rain, directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen in 1952). Common practice at the time, alas. The year of change would be, in this sense, 1959, with his first credit as sound editor in the musical with Zsa Zsa Gabor Fot the first Time (by Rudolph Maté).

Eager to switch to film editing, decisive for the career of the Viennese Peter Zinner, was the producer and director of Lord Jim, Richard Brooks. It was during the making of the British adventure movie starring Peter O’Toole, with Zinner in charge of sound editing, Brooks’s admiration and appreciation for his work led to his first two film edits, The Professionals, a western starring Burt Lancaster and Jack Palance, and In Cold Blood, a noir masterpiece based on Truman Capote’s non fiction novel, also directed by Brooks. After years of anonymity, recognition for his outstanding talent would not be long in coming, starting with his nomination for the ACE Eddie Award for the Western.

Leaping forward in time, we come to the highlight of his career, the well-deserved Academy Award for Best Film Editing, achieved with Michael Cimino’s Vietnam War film The Deer Hunter, starring Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken and the late John Cazale. Having received 180 km of film, Peter Zinner set to work on a monumental edit, as the producers were more than satisfied with the first three and a half hours of editing. The real problems began with distribution, which disagreed with the length: in the end, Zinner cut the film down to 5.5 km, winning the most coveted statuette as mentioned. And this despite his later dismissal, after arguments with Cimino, for having dared to edit the famous wedding scene, considered by Universal to be an event in itself.

Rather than the Academy Award won, I decided to dedicate my final commentary to another masterpiece edited by Peter Zinner, The Godfather Part II and to a precise sequence, described as iconic by the famous film critic Tony Sloman. This scene features an overlapping of sequences in antithesis, with Michael Corleone intent on avenging the murder of his father Don Vito by killing his enemies, following the music of an organ in the church, the same one where the baptism of his own son is being celebrated. Holy water and fire, sacred and profane, in a montage that has made the great skill of Peter Zinner, who passed away in Santa Monica in 2007 after a marriage and a daughter who followed in his footsteps, go down in cinema history.

Info: the page of Peter Zinner on iMDb