Local Release

(variety) ‘Downfall’ Director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s ‘The Painter’ Paves Way for Van Gogh Film (EXCLUSIVE)

By Liza Foreman

German director Oliver Hirschbiegel, whose movie “Downfall” was nominated for an Oscar, shot his latest film “The Painter” in only four days. The docu-fiction, which screens Saturday at IDFA, is a collaboration with German artist Albert Oehlen, who is played by Teutonic thesp Ben Becker (“Comedian Harmonists). Now Hirschbiegel and Oehlen are working together on a film about Vincent van Gogh, he tells Variety.

“The Painter,” whose sales rights are being handled by Picture Tree International, follows the artist (Becker) completing a painting for much of its 94-minute run time. Becker creates on camera what Oehlen is doing behind it to show the process of the artist at work.

“It’s a genre-bending film and a first,” says Hirschbiegel, who boarded the project after Oehlen asked him for advice about equipment. “You are watching a painting starting from scratch and being completed. This hasn’t really been done before in film history. Seeing the whole process and the emotions behind it. Most films on painters show a few scenes of them at work.”

Oehlen and Hirschbiegel studied together at the Hochschule der Bildenden Künste Hamburg, and have been friends ever since. Their careers went in different directions.

“It is because of Albert that I didn’t become an artist,” says Hirschbiegel, speaking from an apartment in Rome where he begins filming the migrant thriller series ”Europa” on Friday. “I always knew that he would be ahead of me. We always had a friendly collaboration.”

He has no regrets.

“My career has turned out pretty well. When I did the first feature at 26, I realized that was what I really wanted to do, make films,” he says.

There are differences between the two worlds.

“As you see in the film, to be an artist is very lonely. You have to be a warrior,” says Hirschbiegel. “Film collaboration is energy work with actors. Painting is also energy work, but it’s more complex because it’s self generating. It’s related to what’s come before. There is a path that the energy takes, a flow to meet the person looking at a painting. The energy reaches you in a way. I’m not talking about bad painting.”

Originally, a 30-40 minute documentary was planned. But, “it’s an old rule that I go by. The footage tells you what it wants to be. A scene ending up for two minutes tells you it has fulfilled its purpose,” he says.

The film was shot over a three-day period in Oehlen’s studio in Hamburg, with a day’s filming in Hannover. It was a truly collaborative process.

“I was director and producer because I had made some storyboards, and Albert was named writer and producer because he had written a page and a half,” says Hirschbiegel. “I’m not an experienced producer so I needed one on board.”

The project was presented to Mike Downey, chairman of the European Film Academy, and he came on board as the executive producer. “He got it immediately,” he says.

“This challenge of a concoction is indeed a mixologist’s cocktail of being fascinating, diverting, unsettling and insightful,” says Downey, “On the other hand it’s also cheeky, experimental, amusing, full of wicked irony and tennis racquets – and very funny in parts, disruptive, myth busting and multi-layered.”

The next step was to send it out to Charlotte Rampling, whose voice can be heard in the film.

“Charlotte is as sharp as a pencil. It was a test sending the film over to her but she got it,” he adds.

Making the film was a watershed moment for Hirschbiegel. “It’s what I always wanted to do, but never dared to – just shoot,” he says. “We had freedom. It was exhausting but incredible. It was a very fulfilling experience, and I think it came across. I love the intensity the film creates with viewers.”

Becker took some artistic license with playing Oehlen. “He’s a brilliant actor,” says Hirschbiegel. “And he understands the process of painting. He’s an excellent stage actor, which helps. He creates something on the spot from a thought. He’s so good at improvisation. I would say do this but slower. Albert would give him a line to say. He would change that sentence completely.”

Hirschbiegel and Oehlen are already on to their next project “Bad Painter.” “It is loosely based on letters from Van Gogh to his brother,” says Hirschbiegel. The cast includes Birgit Minichmayr (“Downfall”). “She’s one of the top five actresses in Germany,” he says.

The film was shot in eight days in an area known as the Tuscany of East Germany, he says, about an hour from Berlin.

“Albert gave me ten pages for ‘Bad Painter,’ ” says Hirschbiegel. I forced him to get Final Draft and put it into order.”

It was, “more of the same fun and as exhausting,” he adds.

Hirschbiegel’s team is trying to edit “Bad Painter” during the 120-day shoot for “Europa.” They may add a few more days shooting for “Bad Painter.”

As for the meaning of the title… “You will see,” he says.

The action for “Europa” takes place on a cruise ship lent by Richard Branson. Real life migrants play the part of extras in the Sky thriller series.

“In real life, they walk across the desert and get held for ransom from their families so they can continue their journey,” he says. “It’s a tragedy that’s not going to end soon. But this series is also entertainment.”

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