Local Release

(businessdoceurope) Seville/IDFA review - The Painter by Oliver Hirschbiegel

A freewheeling and often mesmerising one-man show from German actor Ben Becker dominates Oliver Hirschbiegel’s intriguing and illuminating hybrid documentary which sees Becker ‘playing’ acclaimed contemporary artist Albert Oehlen in an improvised performance of abstract art creation that all the time mirrors the ‘real’ process that is happening behind the camera.

The notion of the artist struggling and battling with their process is a familiar one, but this performance piece offers a rare insight into the artist’s emotional and physical journey, with Becker a magnetic personality (apparently) infused with creative drive.

But at the same time there is a playful element to the film. We are told that this is a staged and guided improvisation with the ‘real’ process happening behind the camera, but the viewer does not get to see Oehlen in action, and only occasionally does Hirschbiegel pan back and film another cameraman following Becker as he aggressively attacks, smears and paints his large canvas.

It is testimony to Becker’s broad and striking performance that the viewer buys into the artistic journey right from the start of the film. “I am the painter,” he proclaims as the camera arrives at Oehlen’s stunning modernist studio. “Time is money,” he shouts from the roof of the building.

What follows is, in some ways, the observation of the artistic process. Becker-as-Oehlen talks about his feelings about art; what paints he uses, his artistic processes and his emotions. He states how, “a white canvas is the most awful and most beautiful thing there is, because everything starts with it and somehow everything stops with it.”

Talking constantly as he paints, agonising about certain colours and brush strokes, the artist/actor debates the process of creation, veering between elation – “this rocks” he shouts at one moment – through to despair and doubt, adding in moments of comedy and almost farce, as well as emotional truth. But at all times Hirschbiegel offers no simple answers as to what is real and/or authentic.

The film is an artistic rollercoaster ride, with the painting process punctuated with shots of Becker/Oehlen at an exhibition of ‘his’ work or discussing shipping and exhibitions with his assistant, and all the time driven by Becker’s sheer physical presence (he sports an orange boiler suit undone to the waist and a white shirt) as he almost dances in front of the canvas before embarking upon the process of creating.

According to the official production notes, “the finished on-screen painting is an original ‘Oehlen’ on which the artist himself never laid hands. The off screen blueprint painting was destroyed after principal shooting had finished.” Its creation gives the film a real sense of energy, with Becker the driving force, as it questions the purpose of thinking patterns created by white straight male artists of a certain age that have dominated the art world for centuries. As the notes also explain: “It explores the idea of authenticity and originality and subsequently the concept of copyright and ownership which manifests the very basis of capitalism.”

This may well be true, and certainly there is much to unpack and mull over in terms of debate about the nature of art, but The Painter is at its core an enthralling film about the creative process. And worth seeing for Ben Becker’s performance alone.


Germany, 2021, 94mins

Dir Oliver Hirschbiegel

International sales Picture Tree International

Producers Oliver Hirschbiegel, Albert Oehlen

Executive producer Mike Downey

Screenplay Ben Becker, Albert Oehlen

Cinematography Philip Bienmüller, Severin Bärenbold

Editor Alexander Dittner

Music Gudrun Gut, Nathan Wooley

With Ben Becker, Charlotte Rampling (voice)

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