Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus died on April 11, 2017, at the age of 81. A revered innovator of his craft, Ballhaus worked on countless great movies, many of which resulted out of long lasting collaborations with two directors: Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Martin Scorsese. We pay tribute to his legacy with a list of ten of the best films he worked on. (The list is in chronological order.)
1 – THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)
The third collaboration between Michael Ballhaus and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was made for television on a shoestring budget and adapted from the director’s stage production. Although Ballhaus and Fassbinder had a love-hate relationship, their work together was supreme, and the visual use of constricted place here accentuates the atmosphere of claustrophobia and the power of this agonized melodrama.
2 – MARTHA (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)
Slant Magazine called this drama about a bourgeois man’s tyrannical hold over his wife as “possibly the most twisted film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s career.” It was also often quoted by Ballhaus as one of the best films he worked on. Martha is a visual triumph – stylistically informed by Douglas Sirk, one of Fassbinder’s greatest influences – as well as an early showcase for the cinematographer’s virtuosic camerawork. It was on the set of Martha, in fact, that he developed the 360-degree tracking shot that became one of the signature elements of his style.
3 – THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979)
Fassbinder dished out two or three films a year. Being a prolific filmmaker who liked to work fast, he relied immensely on the skill of his cinematographer. Nonetheless, Ballhaus had to work under extreme pressure and was very much an outsider in the Fassbinder crew. Perhaps it was the tension between them that allowed them to create such wonderful works as The Marriage of Maria Braun, one of their best. Nonetheless, Ballhaus would always refer to his 12 feature run with Fassbinder as exhausting.
4 – SHEER MADNESS (Margarethe von Trotta, 1983)
Ballhaus hardly had a chance to work with anyone but Fassbinder during the first half of his career in Germany. One of the very few cinematic instances was Sheer Madness by Margarethe von Trotta, a less known gem, shot intimately and intuitively by Ballhaus, with lots of close-ups – perhaps the work of a more relaxed production. Indeed, Fassbinder was allegedly hurt by what he deemed Ballhaus’ decision to work with another director as a betrayal.
5 – AFTER HOURS (Martin Scorsese, 1985)
The first film of Ballhaus’ second important career collaboration – that with filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Up to After Hours, Ballhaus had worked on nothing but small budget features that had to be shot fast. On the set of After Hours, he could count on such luxuries as an easier working schedule and an assisting crew. Furthermore, Marty was a lot nicer than Fassbinder. After Hours‘ style resembles a (black) comedy undermined by Hitchcockian vibes and master stylist Ballhaus is unafraid to experiment with crane shots and POV.
6 – THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (Martin Scorsese, 1988)
It took Scorsese many years to get this project financed. Upon release, it was deemed as controversial. The Mel Gibson filmed his own take on the event surrounding the Passion of the Christ…Scorsese’s relationship to Catholicism has notoriously influenced his own cinematic works. The Last Temptation of Christ blends realism with quasi-hallucinatory atmospheres. It is a dark movie that takes place in a violently sunny setting. Ballhaus brings this energy to the fore very vividly.
7 – THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS (Steve Kloves, 1989)
Like all the greatest cinematographers, Ballhaus was extremely versatile and could shoot a project like The Last Temptation of Christ as well as its polar opposite, The Fabulous Baker Boys. Here, we are drawn into the not so fabulous but rather sleazy, cheap and tacky world of American lounge singers. Ballhaus is unafraid to move his camera around confidently in what seem to be long, continuous brushstrokes. Some parts of the movie even feel like antecedents to a side of Ballhaus that would come to the fore in a certain future collaboration with Scorsese.
8 – GOODFELLAS (Martin Scorsese, 1990)
Although Ballhaus was a veteran of his field at the time he shot Goodfellas, it was arguably this movie that won him global praise and definitively consigned him to the film history books. Not much can be said about the innovative work of cinematography he undertakes in Goodfellas – particularly the much praised long mobile shots and zoom-in pullbacks. The classic tracking shot of Ray Liotta walking into the Copacabana is also one of the most famous and most referenced shots in the history of film.
9 – SLEEPERS (Barry Levinson, 1996)
Barry Levinson’s Sleeper is a story of the dark repercussions of childish carelessness and easy living. Ballhaus heightens the brutality of its drama by delineating clearly a contrast between the joy and freedom represented by the luminous setting of a sunny New York City and the darkness, opressiveness, and claustrophobia of the jail that the children, who are the lead characters in the film, suddenly find themselves thrown into.
10 – THE DEPARTED (Martin Scorsese, 2006)
Scorsese’s depiction of Boston as a criminal hotbed owes a lot to Ballhaus’ vibrant and visceral cinematography. Ballhaus was also the right man to give it a visual imprint that would relocate the story of the already famous Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs through a distinctive visual imprint. Sadly, The Departed would also be his last praiseworthy contribution to the filmic idiom as he began losing his sight in 2004 due to glaucoma.