Michael Ballhaus, the German director of photography known for his mastery of camera movement and his partnerships with directors Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Martin Scorsese, has died. One of the most remarkable cinematographers of his generation, Ballhaus brought the expressive and fluid camera of the classic studio long take—exemplified by director Max Ophüls, a family friend—into the strange new world of lightweight dolly tracks, zoom lenses, and Steadicam, and in the process created some of the most iconic and breathtaking shots of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. He was 81.
Born into a well-known family of stage actors, Ballhaus developed an early interest in photography, but didn’t catch the film bug until the age of 19, when he was invited to the set of Ophüls’ final masterpiece, Lola Montès. (He appears in the film as an extra.) The experience inspired him to become a cinematographer, and he would spend most of the next decade working on documentaries and TV movies for West German television, and by 1966 had become the head cinematographer for the regional broadcaster Südwestfunk. He was a seasoned (though unknown) pro by 1971, the year he began his collaboration with Fassbinder, the prolific enfant terrible of the New German Cinema.
Their first film, Whity, was such a disastrous experience that Fassbinder followed it with Beware Of A Holy Whore (also shot by Ballhaus), one of the definitive unflattering portrayals of the filmmaking process. The two would go on to make 15 films together, including The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant, Fox And His Friends, The Marriage Of Maria Braun, and the pioneering two-part sci-fi TV movie World On A Wire. The collaboration played a key role in Fassbinder’s artistic development, as Ballhaus not only brought an ingenious technical range to the notoriously temperamental filmmaker’s low-budget projects, but also pushed him to embrace a more heightened artificiality.
By the time Fassbinder died of a drug overdose in 1982, Ballhaus had relocated to the United States. He had shot a number of films, TV projects, and music videos by the time he began his partnership with Martin Scorsese. The two would end up making seven films together: After Hours, The Color Of Money, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Goodfellas, The Age Of Innocence, Gangs Of New York, and The Departed. A true believer in the expressive camera, Ballhaus crafted charges of kinetic energy and high drama. He not only had the know-how required to plan and light complex camera movements (no easy feat, given his penchant for 360-degree shots), but could do it quickly and with a minimum of crew. The famous Copacabana Steadicam shot in Goodfellas, for example, was planned, lit, choreographed, and filmed in the space of hours.
Known for his command of evocative lighting and tricky set-ups, Ballhaus also shot Francis Ford Coppola’s sumptuous and expressionist Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Prince’s eccentric Pre-Code pastiche Under The Cherry Moon, in addition to more conventional (though very handsome) work on the likes of James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News and Robert Redford’s Quiz Show. Diagnosed with glaucoma in 1996, he retired from filmmaking after The Departed due to his worsening vision, but made a brief return for 3096 Days, a 2013 feature directed by his wife, Sherry Hormann. The cinematographer Florian Ballhaus (RED, The Devil Wears Prada) is his son.