Critic's Notebook: Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus Could Do It All

Andrew Cooper/Photofest
Michael Ballhaus on the set of 2006's 'The Departed'

He could be spectacular, perhaps most opulently on Francis Coppola's 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' but in distinctly different modes for Martin Scorsese on 'The Last Temptation of Christ,' 'Goodfellas,' 'The Age of Innocence' and 'Gangs of New York.'

It says nearly everything you need to know about a cinematographer when the top directors in the world want to work with him again and again and again. So it was with Michael Ballhaus, who was supremely capable, infinitely adaptable, agreeable to work with and flexible enough to repeatedly have Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols, Barry Levinson, James L. Brooks, Robert Redford and Wolfgang Petersen calling him to shoot their films.

Ballhaus, who died Tuesday at 81 a decade after having retired and returned to his native Germany in the wake of his first wife's death, could do it all: big or small, spectacular or intimate, elaborate or simple.

He could be of great service to first-time directors — he shot the debut features of James Foley, Marisa Silver, Steve Kloves, Irwin Winkler and, lest we forget, Prince. He could be spectacular, perhaps most opulently on Francis Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula but in distinctly different modes for Martin Scorsese on The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York, four of the seven features he shot for the helmer between 1985-2006.

And he knew how to light and shoot stars (and particularly women) to maximum effect — just ask Michelle Pfeiffer, as it was Ballhaus who conceived and executed the breathtaking 360-degree shot of her singing on the grand piano in Kloves' The Fabulous Baker Boys, and later photographed her so appreciatively in Age of Innocence.

Then again, by the time the inexhaustible and ever-genial Ballhaus came to work in the U.S. in the early 1980s, he had survived a decadelong trial by fire in the almost continual employ of the brilliant and taxing taskmaster Fassbinder. The child of actors who were friends with the celebrated film director Max Ophuls, Ballhaus, at age 18, got to observe Ophuls and master cinematographer Christian Matras shoot the opulent period drama Lola Montes. It was a decisive experience.

“The director had a great idea and the cinematographer would fulfill it,” Ballhaus recalled. “Watching them work, that is when I first thought filmmaking would be something wonderful that I would love to do.”

While studying photography and working his way up in the camera department in German television, he idolized two cinematographers, Raoul Coutard, the preferred cameraman of Godard and Truffaut, and Sven Nykvist, who shot Ingmar Bergman's films. Ballhaus soon found his own partner in crime, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Known for pushing himself and his collaborators to the brink and beyond (he died in in 1982 at age 37, having directed 40 features and much more for TV and the stage), Fassbinder worked fast but also had very demanding visual requirements, which Ballhaus learned to fulfill over the course of at least 14 features between 1971-1981.

“If you can get along with Fassbinder, you can get along with any director,” Ballhaus later reflected. “I knew that after that I could work with any and every director.” Pressed by Fassbinder, Ballhaus pulled off a difficult 360-degree tracking shot in the 1974 feature Martha that not only prefigured Baker Boys but also led to Scorsese thinking of him when he was preparing a return to low-budget filmmaking with After Hours in 1984. When Scorsese explained that he had $4 million and 40 nights to shoot the nocturnal New York production, Ballhaus replied, “Marty, all we have to do is shoot 15 scenes a night. I can do that, I did it with Fassbinder.”

The budgets became bigger on the subsequent films Ballhaus and Scorsese did together and on which they employed a vast array of visual approaches: star lighting and imagining every which way to shoot a pool game in The Color of Money; the spectacular and brutal desert bleakness in The Last Temptation of Christ; the long mobile shots and zoom-in pullbacks in Goodfellas; the suffocating opulence of the Gilded Age in The Age of Innocence; the elaboration delineation of a distinctly different era in Gangs of New York; and the robust depiction of yet another hotbed of crime in The Departed.

And it was not only because of his teaming with Scorsese that Ballhaus became one of the era's leading portraitists of New York City; other memorable evocations of the city are to be found in, among others, Silver's Old Enough, Nichols' Working Girl, Levinson's Sleepers and, perhaps best of all, Redford's Quiz Show. Ballhaus could do it all, and did.

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