Bernd Eichinger: Film producer, director and writer whose hits included 'Downfall' and the 'Resident Evil' series

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Bernd Eichinger was Germany's most successful postwar film producer.

He transformed the failing Constantin Film Produktion intoa major force with a string of international hits including the children'sfantasy The Never Ending Story (1984), the Sean Connery thriller The Name of the Rose (1986), and the horror film Resident Evil (2002) and its three sequels. He also produced independently the acclaimed film about the last days of Hitler, Downfall (2004), which he also wrote.

He fearlessly courted controversy with such films as an adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr's Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), a sensational novel about life among drug addicts and prostitutes in the "Red Hook" section of Brooklyn, and Downfall, which, though nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Film, was attacked by many for showing the human side of Hitler, played by Bruno Ganz, who later stated, "I needed to feel some compassion for Hitler, for fractions of a second, in order to play him. I cannot only hate this person."

The son of a doctor, Eichinger was born in Neuburg an der Donau, north-west of Munich, in 1949. In 1970 he enrolled at Munich's Television and Film Academy, and after graduating in 1973 he formed his first production company, Solaris Film, where he was able to promote the work of Germany's "New Wave" of directors, including Wim Wenders and Wolfgang Peterson. In 1979 he took control of Constantin Film, where the hits he produced included Uli Edel's Christiane F (1982), Peterson's The Never Ending Story, a children's fantasy combining live action and animation, and Bille August's The House of the Spirits (1993). Jean-Jacques Arnaud's The Name of the Rose, based on Umberto Eco's 14th-century mystery novel in which a Benedictine Abbey is plagued by a rash of murders which are investigated by a nonconformist monk (Sean Connery) and his novice (Christian Slater), was an international hit, though not in the US.

Eichinger directed a handful of films, notably Das Madchen Rosemarie (A Girl Called Rosemarie, 1996), while his other productions included Bille August's Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997), a mystery set in Scandinavia; Resident Evil, based on Japanese video games; and Tim Story's super-hero comic-book fantasy, Fantastic Four (2005), which also spawned a sequel. In 2001 he was co-producer of the winner of the Oscar for best foreign language film, Nowhere in Africa, which told of a Jewish German family who settle in Kenya in the 1930s.

Eichinger based his script for Downfall partly on the memoirs of one of Hitler's secretaries and partly on historical texts. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel and set mainly in Hitler's bunker during the last days of the Third Reich as the battle of Berlin rages outside, it was one of his most critically acclaimed films as well as one of his most provocative, due to scenes such as the one in which Eva Braun presents Hitler with a chocolate birthday cake.

Wim Wenders was among those who objected to the film's looking at the period "through the eyes of the perpetrators, generating a kind of benevolent understanding of them." In response, Eichinger conceded that the Nazi period was the worst in German history and "traumatised not only the generation that was involved, but traumatised also my generation," adding, "There is no such thing as telling the truth and not taking everything into consideration. Otherwise you are a Stalinist with one view of things. You burn what doesn't fit your position or put it into the archives because you want to show only bad and good. When I wrote this script, the important thing for me was to show the grey."

In 2005 Eichinger made his first attempt at staging opera, with a production of Wagner's Parsifal at Berlin's Staatsoper, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Relying heavily on video to depict explosions and collapsing buildings, Eichinger moved some of the action to New York and dressed the Knights of the Holy Grail as rockers and punks. The result was roundly booed by those members of the audience who had remained to the end. Eichinger returned to film, both producing and writing Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006) and Edel's Oscar-nominated Der Baader Meinhof Complex (2008).

Noted for his trademark white plimsolls, Eichinger was rarely without female companionship. The actress Katja Flint was a long-time partner in the 1990s, followed by another actress, Corinna Harfouch (1999-2004), and he was also linked to actresses Hannelore Eisner and Barbara Rudnik. In 2006 he married the journalist Katja Hoffman, and is also survived by a daughter, Nina Eichinger, a television presenter.

His death from a heart attack at 61 shocked the German film industry. Television stations altered their schedules to show his films, and Dieter Kosslich, director of the Berlin Film Festival, described him as a "visionary producer and passionate cineaste," and added that he will be honoured posthumously at this year's Festival.

Bernd Eichinger, film producer, director and writer: born Neuburg an der Donau, Germany 11 April 1949; married 2006 Katja Hoffman; one daughter; died Los Angeles 24 January 2011.