An Outsider Looks Inside Diana
With a script that, befitting its subject, was far more ambitious in scope than either an ordinary
romantic drama or a biopic, the search was on for a director who could match the complexity of the
material. "The director for this film was an absolutely crucial choice," comments Robert Bernstein.
Ultimately, the quest led to a not-so-obvious pick: Oliver Hirschbiegel, the German director
who came to international attention with the controversial and critically acclaimed DOWNFALL, a
compelling glimpse into Adolph Hitler's final ten days in Nazi Germany. That film broke taboos,
sparked debates and garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
But more than that, it displayed Hirschbiegel's willingness to take on big subjects with style and
"Oliver had already made one masterpiece about an icon, in that case an evil icon, in the last
days of his life. Diana is another icon and in her own way, she was stuck in her own bunker," says
Bernstein of what drew the producers to Hirschbiegel.
At first, Hirschbiegel was hesitant to take on a subject that was so very . . . British. "I actually
thought I wasn't that interested in Diana but my agent told me that Stephen Jeffreys is a very fine writer so I read the script," he recalls. "I was totally surprised -- ten pages in I was hooked and I got
the one thing I hadn't at all expected: a very exciting and moving love story."
Hirschbiegel continues, "Diana was at a point in her life when she was searching for purpose,
when there was no movement in her life, and that's when she fell in love. There was something very
honest and raw about her love for Hasnat and at the same time it became something that inspired
Right away, the director had his own vision for how to approach the film -- hoping to pull the
audience deep inside Diana's increasingly claustrophobic and chaotic world of security and media so
they could get an authentic sense of her life, and her humanity. As Diana opens her heart to Hasnat,
Hirschbiegel wanted to show the world simultaneously closing in around her. He became fascinated
by her symbiotic relationship with the media, and by what it must have been like to be in her position,
knowing she could use her outsized aura to motivate people, yet unable to find private satisfaction.
Stephen Jeffreys was thrilled with Hirschbiegel's conception of his script. "Oliver was very
astute in wanting to focus in on the way Diana's life was constantly monitored and how this must have
increased her sense of isolation and emotional emptiness," says the writer.
A German director telling a quintessentially British tale did seem unconventional. But
Hirschbiegel came to believe that the fact that he isn't British, that he is a bit of an outsider to UK
culture, gave him a considerable advantage. He felt liberated to tell the story he wanted, which
someone connected to the British media world might not.
"As a German, I'm not really part of what's going on in the UK and that helped me a great deal
because I could bring a very clear viewpoint," he explains. "I felt I was able to make a film that's as
authentic, honest and true as possible, without having anything to fear."
Diving into research, Hirschbiegel immersed himself in Diana's life, and also her ubiquitous
imagery, covering his walls with her photographs. He saw before him her many well-known facets:
the tireless philanthropy, the fastidious modern style, the gossip surrounding her rocky royal marriage,
her devoted motherhood to two young Princes. But who was she really? The more he looked, the
more he felt he understood.
"I met a lot of people close to her but the most useful source was the photos. It's the look, her
posture, her eyes, the way people look at her -- they tell a million stories," he says.
Hirschbiegel also had access to a trove of Diana's personal letters and these became a
precious fount of information for him. "She wrote up to six letters a day, describing the details of her
situation: her thoughts and feelings," he explains.
The more he read, watched and thought, the more starkly human Diana became, and the
more he appreciated why so many people who never knew her personally related to the Princess as an intimate friend. "She radiated that certain kind of energy that you usually only see in old movie
stars, from another era," he muses. "Yet, like all icons, she wasn't perfect. We knew that, she let us
see that, and I think that's why people so adored her."
He also came to adore another side of Diana: the woman who was a sly rebel in the House of
Windsor, who stood up against some of the most powerful people in the world.
"She really was a game changer," Hirschbiegel states. "When you marry into the Royal
Family, there are two ways you can go: you either play the game, which is very isolating and not very
fun for a woman, or you can choose to be the rebel and sort of play the game, but go against it at the
same time. That was Diana. She could be insecure and afraid but at the same time she was a fighter
and I love that about her. Hasnat's grandmother compares her to a lioness and I feel that's exactly
what she was."
That fighting spirit became part and parcel of Hirschbiegel's depiction of her romance with
Hasnat Khan. Though they faced all the usual complexities of two mature adults falling in love -- the
damage of the past, the uncertainty of the future, the mix of desire and caution -- added to that was a
whole layer of absurdist challenges that came with a relentless, paparazzi-filled reality.
The fact that Diana and Hasnat grew close to one another in spite of it all was extraordinary to
Hirschbiegel. "Theirs is a beautiful love story," he says. "On the one hand it is a kind of fairy tale: a
private man falls in love with the most famous woman in the world. But on the other, there is
something elementally real about their love that makes the contrast fascinating."
Hirschbiegel also saw another theme linking the two -- the imperative to help others. "They
were both healers in a way and were very perceptive of people's needs. Although she wasn't a
doctor, I believe she had developed her own ways of healing. All the people I spoke to agreed that
when Diana took someone's hand, she elevated that person."
As sophisticated and tangled as the love between Diana and Hasnat became, Hirschbiegel
thinks it is also relatable to everyone who has ever faced obstacles in love. "A good love story always
raises questions about our own lives," he concludes. "What does love really mean? Who do I want
to be with? What do I really want in life? It was that same process for Hasnat and Diana."
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