April 13, 2017
obituary

RIP Michael Ballhaus, Cinematographer for Scorsese, Coppola, and Fassbinder

Michael Ballhaus, who died yesterday, was behind some of the most iconic cinematic moments in history.

Berlin-born cinematographer Michael Ballhaus was one of the secret, largely unsung architects of modern cinema as we know it. Think of the never-ceasing whirlwind of zooms, dollies, and tracks that draw us into the world of Martin Scorsese, the art deco disco of Under The Cherry Moon, the overwhelming caustic opulence of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and the sublime, orgastic experimentation of Francis Ford Coppola's underrated Dracula. So much of cinema's innovation owes a massive debt to Ballhaus, who was as talented as he was open. Despite working with some of the greatest directors of the last 50 years, he also lent his lenses to studio dramas and comedies like What About Bob? and Uptown Girls, and never brought anything but his best work with him. 

'Gangs of New York,' dir. Martin Scorsese

Ballhaus' background is rich in cinematic history. His uncle, an actor, is the fellow who slaps the famous chalk "M" on Peter Lorre's shoulder in Fritz Lang's 1931 milestone M, while his aunt was married to the great Max Ophüls. When he was a young man, Ballhaus was brought to set for a visit and saw cinematographer Christian Matras at work on the brilliant, complicated shoot of Ophüls' Lola Montès. This moment changed Ballhaus' life, and by 1959 he was busy shooting movies for German TV.

Fassbinder altered the course of German cinema, and he did his best work with Ballhaus behind the camera.

In the 1960s, another chance encounter would alter the course of Ballhaus' fate. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a cineaste with as much drive to make films as Ballhaus. Incorporating Brechtian alienation and a deliberately stultifying style into his revisionist cinema, Fassbinder altered the course of German cinema, and he did his best work with Ballhaus behind the camera.

Their first collaboration, 1971's Whity, showcased the two men's simpatico interest in retrofitting the oppressive colonialist attitude of old cinema into something bravely uncharismatic. The lighting is reminiscent of Luchino Visconti or Josef Von Sternberg, but it's pushed beyond the gorgeous into the insidious. The film is about the only black son of a white family (their faces slathered in ghoulish paint, made to look like the living dead) who sexually outwits his captors. He is the family's secret shame, the son born out of wedlock to the cook. Fassbinder's style is its usually bold self here, but it's augmented immeasurably by the grotesque images Ballhaus cooks up for him. You will never forget the faces haunting every dark corridor of Whity once you've seen them. It remains a crucial piece of the anti-Western canon, a strange mix of Giant and Imitation of Life—an important touchstone for Fassbinder, a Douglas Sirk fanatic.

'World on a Wire,' dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Fassbinder's ensuing artistic triumphs would have Ballhaus setting the visual palette. 1971's Beware of a Holy Whore, 1972's The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, 1973's prophetic World on a Wire, 1974's Martha, 1975's Fox and his Friends and Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, 1976's Chinese Roulette, I Only Want You To Love Me and Satan's Brew, 1977's The Stationmaster's Wife and Women In New York, 1978's Despair 1979's The Marriage of Maria Braun and 1981's Lili Marleen all feature Ballhaus' emotive camerawork. And if that seems like a Herculean feat of productivity, that doesn't count the dozen other movies he made during this period without Fassbinder. With Fassbinder, Ballhaus developed a visual language, including precise proximity of faces to high-key lights that incorporates ideas from early German cinema and American melodrama. They were some of the first to experiment with turning images of the miserable upper class into oil pastels that seem to want to come to life, but can't find the strength—their circumstances have rendered them nearly catatonic. The greatest examples of this can be located in World on a Wire, which uses the duo's obsession with Weimar-era style and decoration as a deliberate fantasy, a realm only reachable in virtual reality; and in The Marriage of Maria Braun, a deeply gorgeous tale of national regret seen through the lens of one survivor. 

With Fassbinder, Ballhaus developed a visual language, including precise proximity of faces to high-key lights that incorporates ideas from early German cinema and American melodrama.

In 1979, Ballhaus and Fassbinder got to work with Sirk, a German emigre who reinvented melodrama in America in the '40s and '50s with such landmarks as Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows (which Fassbinder remade). Sirk's final film was a short called Bourbon Street Blues, made in cooperation with a film school class. The two innovators and cinephiles got to work with their hero, a window to the classic Hollywood they loved and destroyed with equal fervor.

When Fassbinder died in 1982, Ballhaus went to America to start a new chapter in his career. By the time of Fassbinder's death, the pair had done everything they could for German cinema, and though Ballhaus would work with other brilliant German auteurs like Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta, the cinematographer's foundational work was with Americans. He made a few undistinguished mid-budget dramas in the mid '80s (including work with a young John Sayles and as at-yet-unheard-of studio hand named James Foley) but he came into his own with two back-to-back comedies, After Hours and Under The Cherry Moon.

'Under the Cherry Moon,' dir. Prince

After Hours saw Ballhaus at his most hyperactive, trying to keep pace with the frantic firebrand that is Martin Scorsese. The Scorsese of Mean Streets had given way to the more contemplative tour-de-force of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. With Ballhaus, Scorsese recovered his early pace and discovered a few new tricks—the expressive lighting, the whiplash-inducing tracking shots and pans. They were both re-energized by the collaboration; Scorsese would bring Ballhaus back for the fabulous, depressive The Color of Money the next year, which lives and dies in the faded glow of New Jersey poolhouses, makes meals out of the reflections in Paul Newman's sunglasses, and devours complicated montages of pool balls rolling across deep green seas of felt. And then he kept bringing him back, defining the aesthetic we now think of as Scorsesean: The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas (which possess perhaps the most famous Steadicam shot of all time), The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York, and The Departed

The cinematography in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula is so intoxicating, it eclipses every other aspect of production.

Under The Cherry Moon is nowhere as celebrated as After Hours, and even that could stand to be raised a few notches in the canon of cinema. Prince redesigned Cherry Moon, a project-in-progress he jumped on in the middle of production, to be his follow-up to Purple Rain and his directorial debut. Apparently, Ballhaus helped the polymath direct the film—and it shows. His lush black and white photography is as rich as it had ever been, and the scenes of Prince and sidekick Jerome Benton in their apartment have the hermetic, Brechtian feel of late Fassbinder. It's a feature-length treatment of the themes of Bourbon Street Blues, guided by the raucous rhythm of Prince's shimmering pop-funk score. Though Under the Cherry Moon is an aesthetic triumph that flopped hard when it was first released, hopefully, the untimely deaths of both Prince and Ballhaus will recover it from ignominy. 

'Dracula,' dir. Francis Ford Coppola

Ballhaus worked tirelessly throughout the rest of the '80s, '90s, and 2000s, dropping a handful of photographic masterpieces along the way. Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula from 1992 is one such work—the cinematography so intoxicating it eclipses every other aspect of production, and that's no mean feat when you consider the production team Coppola assembled. There's an unforgettable image every few seconds and the in-camera special effects harken back to the best of German expressionist silent cinema. Meanwhile, the romantic fatalism (also present in Scorsese's Age of Innocence) seems to hint at a memory: Ballhaus is reconnecting to the moment of watching the romantic odyssey Lola Montès being made in front of his eyes in 1955. 

Three years after that Lola Montès shoot, Ballhaus married his wife, Helga, with whom he had two children. They were together until her death in 2006. Ballhaus remarried filmmaker Sherry Hormann in 2011 and his final film as cinematographer, 3096 Days, was one of her's. He was beginning to lose his eyesight to glaucoma, but the film is as precise and lovely as anything Ballhaus made for Fassbinder.

Ballhaus helped create a huge portion of modern film grammar and is already missed dearly.       

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