From Hitler to Diana: a portrait of Oliver Hirschbiegel | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 09.01.2014
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From Hitler to Diana: a portrait of Oliver Hirschbiegel

Ten years ago Oliver Hirschbiegel earned worldwide fame with his film "Downfall," which followed the final days of Adolf Hitler. Now his controversial biopic about Princess Diana is arriving in German cinemas.

Adolf Hitler and Princess Diana, aliens from outer space, and the Northern Irish UVF paramilitary organization - the subject matter in Oliver Hirschbiegel's films couldn't be more different. Who is this German director, who has managed to make a name for himself in the international film world? Is he a filmmaker with a signature style, or is he just a technically gifted contractual director?

From TV to big screen

It's not an easy question to answer. Hirschbiegel started off small, working on a TV movie and a German TV series. There was certainly no indication early on that the international film scene would take notice of him. But that's exactly what happened at a London cinema in September 2013, when the director took to the red carpet to present the first biopic about the British icon "Lady Di" before an international audience.

Naomi Watts on the red carpet Photo: Joel Ryan/Invision/AP

Naomi Watts struts the red carpet at the "Diana" world premiere in London

Born in 1957 in Hamburg, Hirschbiegel has lead a career far from straightforward. Although he graduated from film studies at the Hamburg University of Fine Arts, he actually started off studying painting and graphics. He had some success as a performance artist and developer of a video magazine, but he landed in film via television.

Breakthrough with an experiment

For years, Hirschbiegel made a living successfully directing episodes of TV crime shows, including the popular German series "Tatort." But in 2001 he got a break, and with his cinema debut, "Das Experiment" (The Experiment), his name spread to a wider audience.

The film's plot is based on a real experiment conducted by Stanford University in the United States in the early 1970s. The so-called "Stanford prison experiment" aimed to examine the behavior of people put into a realistic, albeit mock, prison situation. Hirschbiegel's version was hailed as a technically accomplished and entertaining film. Here was someone, many opined at the time, who could look beyond a certain genre of bleak German cinema, and instead produce action-packed films that appealed to audiences.

A scene showing Adolf Hitler in Downfall Photo: picture-alliance/dpa

Hirschbiegel scored an Oscar nomination for the controversial "Downfall"

After a low key project, "My Last Film" with German actress Hannelore Elsner in the lead role, the director hit the big time when Bernd Eichinger, Germany's most successful film producer overseas, chose Hirschbiegel to direct his historical drama "Downfall" in 2004. The opus about the last days of Hitler and his closest circle just before the collapse of the Nazi regime was a huge success. Bruno Ganz in the role of Adolf Hitler was an export hit for German culture abroad. Millions of people flocked to cinemas to see the film, and in Hollywood, Hirschbiegel came just short of winning the Oscar for best foreign film.

Criticism and acclaim

Even though most of the reviews were negative, and many film critics thought "Downfall" appeared to be more a film of its producer Bernd Eichinger than its director, Hirschbiegel seemed open to new ideas. He also seemed to "understand" Hollywood.

Still, the director remained true to himself. After the multi-million dollar Nazi history film, he once again decided to make a small film with a tight budget. Almost a counter model to the pompous Hitler Opus, "Just an Ordinary Jew," tells the story of a man who is invited to give a lecture about his role as a Jewish citizen in the postwar Federal Republic.

Filmszene from Five Minutes of Heaven Photo: picture-alliance/dpa

Fast-paced 'Five Minutes of Heaven' made a splash at Sundance

Then Hollywood came knocking on Hirschbiegel's door, and the result was a disaster. His next project, the science-fiction flick "Invasion" (2007), starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, was a flop with audiences and critics alike. In the last phase of production, Hirschbiegel was dropped and replaced with another director.

Two years later he had better luck with the British-Irish production, "Five Minutes of Heaven." The film, which explores a chapter of the conflict in Northern Ireland from 1975, was fast-paced, well-told political cinema that picked up an award at the Sundance Film Festival. In Germany, the film was hardly noticed, and in 2011 Hirschbiegel returned once more to television to direct the historical drama series, "Borgia."

Diana attracts harsh criticism

"Diana," Hirschbiegel's sixth cinema production, was unveiled at a glitzy world premiere in London in September 2013. The film charts Diana's love affair with the Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, shortly before her death in a car crash in August 1997. Reaction to the film from the British press has been brutal: "Embarrassing, atrocious, intrusive," wrote "The Times," lamenting that "Lady Di" has died a second time with the film.

A scene from the film Diana Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Concorde Filmverleih

Critics in the UK have savaged the new biopic "Diana"

Before the premiere, Hirschbiegel was asked why he chose to delve into this English-only subject. "As a German, I'm not really part of what is going on in this country," replied the filmmaker, who now has an apartment in London. "I had the feeling that I could make a film that is so authentic, honest and as true as possible, without needing to be afraid about it."

In England, the film has been poorly received by audiences and critics alike. It's also been met with little enthusiasm in the US and Canada, where it was launched in November. Whether audiences in the rest of the world will have a more lax attitude to the representation of the icon Diana remains to be seen. But one thing seems certain: the roller coaster ride that has been Oliver Hirschbiegel's career - between big-budget productions and smaller films, from TV series to cinema - will continue.

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