'Goodfellas' Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus Dies at 81

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Michael Ballhaus

The German lenser worked with star directors like Martin Scorsese, Robert Redford, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wolfgang Petersen.

Veteran German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who brought his trademark panoramic tracking shot to the works of Robert Redford, Martin Scorsese and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, has died. He was 81.

Ballhaus passed away Tuesday evening in Berlin after a short illness, the German publishing house Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt (DVA), which published his autobiography in 2014, said Wednesday in a statement. His death was also confirmed to THR by Ballhaus' publicist.

"Michael Ballhaus was a cinematographer who created unforgettable images. And he was a man with a sense of style, subtlety and a political commitment," DVA's Thomas Rathnow, a publisher with Random House Germany, said in his statement. 

The German cinematographer received three Oscar nominations during his career, for work on Gangs of New York, The Fabulous Baker Boys and Broadcast News.

Born in August 1935 in Eichelsdorf, Germany, Ballhaus started in film after helmer Max Ophuls, a relative, allowed him onto the set of Lola Montes in 1955.

He followed director Peter Lilienthal to New York to handle the camera work on Dear Mr. Wonderful in 1981. A year later, Ballhaus worked with John Sayles on Baby, It's You.

Over a long Hollywood career, Ballhaus' DP credits included Goodfellas for Martin Scorsese, Robert Redford's The Legend of Bagger Vance and Air Force One for Wolfgang Petersen. Scorsese first picked Ballhaus to lens the 1985 dark comedy After Hours and they instantly connected.

The German cinematographer would go on to shoot such other Scorsese films as The Last Temptation of Christ and The Departed, his last Hollywood effort.

Ballhaus in his 2014 autobiography Images in My Head: The Story of My Life underlined his early surprise and eventual satisfaction to have worked in the U.S., and in Hollywood. "At the beginning America was just a beautiful dream. Unreachable. And I thought myself naive to believe that it could ever come true. But it did. I'm still not quite sure how or why, but I consider myself very lucky," he wrote.

The Berlin Film Festival, where Ballhaus was a frequent visitor, paid tribute to the German cinematographer. "Michael Ballhaus was a cinematographer who was a kindred talent to directors and whose oeuvre is unique. He was a great artist, a wonderful person and a longtime friend," Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick said in a statement.

Back in Germany, Ballhaus shot 17 movies with Fassbinder, including The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and The Marriage of Maria Braun. It was during the shooting of Martha that he developed his legendary 360-degree tracking shot, where the camera moves in a full circle around an actor.

Ballhaus was married to German actress Helga Maria Betten from 1960-2006, and to Sherry Hormann starting in 2011.

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