Michael Ballhaus, the German-born cinematographer whose restless and innovative visual style helped fuel some of the most noteworthy films of our time, passed away on April 11 at the age 81. A favorite of an eclectic range of filmmakers, including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols and James L. Brooks, his contributions helped to earn six nominations for the Oscar for Best Picture and he himself was nominated for the prize for Best Cinematography three times, only the beginning of accolades he would receive throughout his career.
Born in Berlin on August 5, 1935, the son of actors Lena Hutter and Oskar Ballhaus, it is said that he first became interested in cinematography in 1955 when he visited the set of the classic film “Lola Montes”—his aunt was married to director Max Ophuls at the time—and observed cinematographer Christian Matras at work. After taking a course in photography, he went to work for several years as a television cameraman before hooking up with one of the leading lights of the emerging German New Wave of filmmaking, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Starting with “Whity” in 1971, Ballhaus would collaborate with Fassbinder on 16 films over the next decade, including such classics as “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” (1972), “World on a Wire” (1973) and “The Marriage of Maria Braun” (1979). Although Fassbinder preferred to work at a rapid pace, Ballhaus was still able to give the films a distinct visual style. It was during the filming of “Martha” that he developed the then-astonishing 360-degree tracking shot that allowed the camera to move in a full circle around the actors, a trick that would eventually become one of his signature moves.
At the beginning of the ‘80s, Ballhaus moved to the United States to work in the American film industry. After serving as a camera operator for a couple of years, he got his first American credit for cinematography on John Sayles’ lovely coming-of-age story “Baby, It’s You” (1983), giving the film a look that belied the film’s relatively small budget. After working on a few more independent films, including “Reckless” (1984), “Old Enough” (1984) and “Heartbreakers” (1984), he made another important personal and professional connection when Martin Scorsese hired him to shoot a low-budget indie-style film that he was working on as a way of collecting his bearings after a string of increasingly complex and complicated productions, the dark comedy “After Hours” (1985). This would mark the beginning of a long working relationship between Scorsese and Ballhaus that would include five additional collaborations—“The Color of Money” (1986), “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), “Goodfellas” (1990), “The Age of Innocence” (1993), “Gangs of New York” (2002), which earned him the last of his three Oscar nominations, and the Best Picture winner “The Departed” (2006).
Just based on his work with Scorsese alone, Ballhaus could have earned a place in the pantheon of the great cinematographers of all time—“Goodfellas” has so many classic visual moments in it that it almost feels like a greatest hits reel of his work at times (ironic, considering that Ballhaus has admitted to having had misgivings about working on the film because of his aversion to screen violence). But he would contribute to a number of other notable films over the years as well, like with the lush Art Deco look of Prince’s weird cult item “Under the Cherry Moon” (1986), or helping director Paul Newman keep his adaptation of “The Glass Menagerie” (1987) from feeling hopelessly stage-bound. Ballhaus received then his first Oscar nomination for his work on James L. Brooks’ “Broadcast News” (1987). In 1988, he shot “Working Girl” for Mike Nichols, beginning a collaboration that would also entail “Postcards from the Edge” (1990), “Primary Colors” (1998) and “What Planet Are You From?” (2000) and received his second Oscar nomination for the gorgeous visuals he contributed to “The Fabulous Baker Boys” (1989).
In what could be the highlight of his career—at most, a solid #2 behind “Goodfellas"—he shot Francis Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992). Even those who didn’t like the wildly underrated movie as a whole were bowled over by his accomplishments there. During the Nineties through 2006, when he essentially retired from the industry due to failing eyesight after shooting “The Departed,” Ballhaus worked on a wide variety of films, for a wide variety of filmmakers, which included: “Guilty by Suspicion” (1991), “What About Bob?” (1991), “I’ll Do Anything” (1994), “Outbreak” (1995), “Sleepers” (1996), “Air Force One” (1997), “Wild Wild West” (1999), “Uptown Girls” (2003) and “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003).
Even when the film failed—if anyone out there has ever had a kind word to say about “Wild Wild West,” I still have yet to hear it—the cinematography was never the problem. Flashy when he needed to be and gracefully restrained when the material called for it, Ballhaus was a cinematographer who had an almost preternatural intuition for finding just the right visual style for the material at hand. Throughout his career, there was never a single film that suffered at all as the result of his contributions. At a time when, thanks to the combination of digital photography phasing out celluloid and the advent of rapid-fire editing thanks to computers, too many films these days now have a visual style that runs the gamut from the remarkably unremarkable to the downright garish, true visual poets of the sort that Ballhaus was are becoming an increasingly rare breed, making his loss even more troubling and devastating for film fans throughout the world who grew up feasting on and becoming inspired by the images that he provided.