Born in Heemskerk in The Netherlands, Rolf de Heer emigrated to Australia when he was eight years old. He graduated from the Australian Film, Televison and Radio School (AFTRS) in Sydney in 1980.
His first film, produced independentlyin 1984 and both written and directed by de Heer, was Tale of a Tiger, in which schoolboy Orville's fascination with model planes accelerates when he meets Harry, owner of a genuine but sadly neglected Tiger Moth. He followed this with the telemovie (produced for Southern Star) Thank You Jack (1986), in which a boy with a terminal and rare neuromuscular disease befriends an old man who is also dying: de Heer directed the film to a screenplay by James Balian.
In 1990, de Heer directed the film Dingo (written by Raven's Gate co-writer Marc Rosenberg), about an Australian jazz trumpeter who longs to meet his idol again.
In 1993, he wrote, directed and co-produced the film for which he is perhaps best know: Bad Boy Bubby, which won the Grand Jury Special Prize at the Venice Film Festival (1993), the International Jury of Film Critics Award (1993), and the Bronze Plaque of the International Catholic Organisation for Cinema (1993). It also won de Heer two AFI Awards (Best Screenplay: Original and Best Director) and was nominated for Best Film (all 1994) and won the Audience Award at the Valenciennes International Festival of Action and Adventure Films (1995).
De Heer's next film was The Quiet Room (1996), written and directed by de Heer: showing the disintegration of a marriage through the eyes of a ten-year-old child, it was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film festival (1996) and the Golden Spike at the Valladolid International Film Festival. De Heer followed this film with Almost Alien (also known as Epsilon), an ecological science-fiction film. De Heer's final film of the 1990s was Dance Me to My Song (1998), co-written with lead actress Heather Rose and Frederick Stahl.
In 2001, de Heer wrote and directed The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, based on a novel by Luis Sepúlveda: the film won de Heer an FCCA Award (Best Screenplay: Adapted, 2004) and attracted nominations for IF Awards for both Best Feature Film and Best Script (2004).He followed this with The Tracker (2002), which was nominated for AFI Awards for Best Film and Best Original Screenplay (2002), won an AWGIE award for Feature Film: Original (2002), was nominated for an FCCA Award for Best Screenplay: Original (2002), won Best Screenplay at the Ghent International Film Festival (2003) and was nominated for their Grand Prix, was nominated for IF Awards for Best Direction and Best Script (2002), won the Press Award at the Paris Film Festival (2003), won the Jury Special Prize at the Valladolid International Film Festival and was nominated for their Golden Spike (2002), and was nominated for the the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
De Heer's next three films were Alexandra's Project,Ten Canoes, andDr Plonk (2007), for all of which de Heer was was both script-writer and director. Both Alexandra's Project and Ten Canoes attracted a high number of awards and nominations, both domestic and international. Alexandra's Project attracted awards and nominations from the Australian Film Institute, the Berlin International Film Festival, the Chicago International Film Festival, the Film Critics Circle of Australia, IF Awards, and the Valladolid International Film Festival. Ten Canoes attracted awards and nominations from the Australian Film Institute, Cannes Film Festival (where it won a special jury prize), the Film Critics Circle of Australia, the Ghent International Film Festival, the IF Awards, and the Satellite Awards. It is also unique as the first feature film filmed entirely in Indigenous Australian dialects.
Dr Plonk, a silent, black-and-white film, is a return to de Heer's interest in science fiction, showing a scientist experimenting with time travel.
De Heer's most recent film is The King is Dead! (2012), which Screen Australia describes as 'a dark comedy about neighbours, ice and baseball bats.'
A story within a story and overlaid with narration, Ten Canoes takes place in two periods in the past. The first story, filmed in black-and-white as a reference to the 1930s ethnographic photography of Donald Thompson, concerns a young man called Dayindi who takes part in his first hunt for goose eggs. During the course of several trips to hunt, gather and build a bark canoe, his older brother Minygululu tells him a story about their ancestors and the old laws. The story is also about a young man who had no wife but who coveted one of his brother's wives, and also of the stranger who disrupted the harmony of their lives. It is cautionary tale because Minygululu is aware that Dayinidi desires his young and pretty third wife.
The second story (shot in colour) is set much further back in time. Yeeralparil is a young man who desires the third wife of his older brother Ridjimiraril. When Ridjimiraril's second wife disappears, he suspects a man from another tribe has been seen near the camp. After he spears the stranger he discovers that he was wrong. Knowing that he must face the man's relatives he chooses Yeeralparil to accompany him during the ritual payback. When Ridjimiraril dies from his wounds the tribe's traditions decree that Yeeralparil must inherit his brother's wives. The burden of these responsibilities, however, is more than the young man expects.