about

Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger is an accomplished filmmaker whose career encompasses camera work, directing, writing and editing. Zeitlinger is collaborating with Werner Herzog since 1995 when he was director of photography on the director’s documentary Death For Five Voices. That film began an intensive teamwork that has yielded such documentaries as Little Dieter Needs To Fly, My Best Fiend, Wheel of Time, and Grizzly Man as well as the dramas Queen of the Desert, Invincible and Rescue Dawn.
Zeitlingers work has garnered a lot of awards and nominations. Encounters at the End of the World was nominated for the Oscar, and won the Cinema Eye Award for Outstanding Achievment in Cinematography. At Nightfall was awarded with the German Cinematographer Award. Dreamhotel Africa won the Austrian Romy Award for best Cinematography.
Peter Zeitlinger was born in Prague. Due to the turbulences during the Soviet occupation in 68 and the political instability of Czechoslovakia he left the country with his mother and moved to the neighboring and neutral country of Austria. Not even 10 years old young Zeitlinger had to learn a new mother tongue. Being forced to express himself in a new way, he started painting and sketching a lot.
Aged thirteen Peter Zeitlinger discovered the possibility of making images move. A friend’s father had an 8mm camera and kept it in his gynecologist’s practice. When during the heights of puberty Peter Zeitlinger and his friend secretly observed the gynecologist at work, they discovered the camera. During the night Peter Zeitlinger would sneak into the practice and borrow the camera. For many nights he used the operating light in the practice and worked on his own animated films before he sneaked out of the practice at the crack of dawn. One night he was discovered by his friend’s father but strangely enough he was not told off! Instead, the wealthy doctor was so deeply moved by the animated films that he gave his camera to the “poor refugees’ child”. Now it became possible for Zeitlinger to work in the outside world during the daytime.

For one of his first films We Walked he was awarded a youth film festival prize and was given a camera with zoom and audio recording features. That was when filming really lifted off. Until he was accepted at the Academy for Film he had produced a good 70 short or animated films. His first animated film Der Geburtstag (The Birthday) was his ticket to university.

Zeitlingers most admired and influencial teachers at University became Michael Snow and Peter Kubelka. He had met Kubelka in Linz and had been impressed by the latter’s all-encompassing concept of art. Kubelka introduced him to the interrelations between music, cooking and film making. All of these three forms of expressing life obey the same rules: composing (i.e. montage, composition) and perceptions in the course of time (dramatic plot). In addition to the courses at the academy Zeitlinger also attended lectures by Herbert Lachmayer and Johann Mader who read at the Vienna philosophical institute. He also studied Management of Arts under Jungblut and Dieter Ronte. The theoretical essays by Zeitlinger, first published in the University newsletter brought about a remarkable uproar amongst his teachers, because in Abschaffung der Montage (Abolishing Montage), which was based on profound philosophical knowledge, Zeitlinger meticulously managed to proof that a “Filmgrammatik” (Grammar of Films) does not exist. Although he was not enrolled in directing it was the lecturers from the directing department (Alfons Stummer and Axel Corti) who strongly spoke out in favor of him being admitted to the exams, which were quite threatened at the time. Zeitlinger graduated with excellency.

During his university years he had already written a number of scripts. One of the scripts co-written with Erhard Riedlsperger was Tunnelkind (Tunnel Child). The film is set at the Czech-Austrian border where the Iron Curtain was erected during the late 60s. Borders and marginalization are recurring topics in his work. Although many of the films he had produced during his university years were awarded several prizes it was due to the highly bureaucratic structures in Austria that it first seemed impossible for a young graduate from university to work as a Director of Photography (DOP). Normally, years of assistance and begging were to be endured first. After a debate sparked off by Zeitlinger the directorate of the film institute decided to allow an exception to the rule: for the first time a first-time director was allowed to select the DOP of his choice, for his first full-length film. The media, as well as the film business and the fellow students were keen to observe the making of this film at the Czech-Austrian border. On a daily basis the latest shots were assessed by a committee even before the director or the DOP had seen them, and the committee then had to grant permission to continue with the project. An experienced replacement crew was kept on call to take over, in case the project would fail. After one week at work the replacement crew was sent home. A little later the film was invited to the Berlin International Film Festival.
The film tells the story of a little girl who manages to convince the chief builder at a construction site for the electric fence to build the fence above a secret tunnel in order to leave an escape into freedom. During the production of Tunnelkind the Iron Curtain for Czechoslovakia was abolished. Reality seemed to catch up with fiction. The Berlin International Film Festival was also dominated by the liberalization of the communist countries and the film was applauded as dealing marvelously with current affairs.

Outstanding hand held camera work in Ulrich Seidls film “Prepared for Losses” aroused Werner Herzogs attention. Herzog hired him for the documentary “Death for Five Voices” which immediately won the Prix d Italia. Zeitlinger has been Herzogs favorite DP since that time. They worked together on the Hollywood Production “Rescue Dawn” which is released by MGM. His meticulous attention to detail and the whole context, his unique visual style of the camera movements added immeasurably to the quality of the film. In 2006 he and Werner Herzog were selected for the US-Antarctic Programm by the US National Science Foundation as writer and artist. “Encounters at the End of the World” was nominated for the Oscar 2009. “Bad Lieutenant” with Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer and Eva Mendes and “My Son, my Son what have Ye done” were together in competition at the 66th Venice International Film Festival 2009. “Queen of the Desert” with Nicole Kidman and James Franco and “Salt and Fire” with Micheal Shannon and Gael Garcia Bernal are the current films which Peter Zeitlinger has shot with Werner Herzog. Currently working on “Future World” and “Pretenders” with the director and also starring James Franco.

Bryan Hillman