A Waldorf graduate, Hirschbiegel studied painting and graphic arts, later film, at the Hamburg University of Fine Arts. In 1986 he directed his first film, the made-for-TV movie Das Go! Projekt, the script for which he had written himself. He became a successful TV director, directing numerous episodes of the Tatort and Kommissar Rex series. His first theatrical release was the well-received Das Experiment, followed by Mein letzter Film, which also met with critical approval.
In 2004 he attracted world-wide attention with the movie Der Untergang (released in English-speaking countries as Downfall), produced by Bernd Eichinger. It recounts Adolf Hitler's last days, and sparked an extensive debate in Germany over the portrayal of Nazi leaders, but for Hirschbiegel, it also brought a number of prizes, including a nomination for the Academy Award for the best foreign film.
He directed his first Hollywood feature The Invasion, which was re shot by Australian director James McTeigue.