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Michael Ballhaus

Michael Ballhaus

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Also Known As: Died:
Born: August 5, 1935 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Berlin, DE Profession: director of photography, assistant cameraman, camera operator

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

This distinguished cinematographer reportedly developed an interest in filmmaking after director Max Ophuls allowed him to watch the filming of "Lola Montes" (1955). In 1970, Ballhaus shot "Whity", the first of some 15 films for Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In some ways his work for the enigmatic German director was not a harbinger for Ballhaus' talents. Fassbinder worked at a furious pace, making lighting textures problematic, and his camera was often static, leaving it up to the cinematographer to provide energy in scenes which have been classified as deliberately claustrophobic. While several of these films are known only to cineastes, a few like "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" (1972) and "The Marriage of Maria Braun" (1978) were art-house successes.In the early 1980s, Ballhaus emigrated to the USA where he quickly established himself as a highly-regarded cameraman. His first American film was John Sayles' "Baby, It's You" (1982) and he has frequently collaborated with a number of major directors, including Mike Nichols, Martin Scorsese and James L Brooks. Ballhaus' style could be described as eclectic rather than easily recognizable, and he has proven equally comfortable with period dramas and...

This distinguished cinematographer reportedly developed an interest in filmmaking after director Max Ophuls allowed him to watch the filming of "Lola Montes" (1955). In 1970, Ballhaus shot "Whity", the first of some 15 films for Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In some ways his work for the enigmatic German director was not a harbinger for Ballhaus' talents. Fassbinder worked at a furious pace, making lighting textures problematic, and his camera was often static, leaving it up to the cinematographer to provide energy in scenes which have been classified as deliberately claustrophobic. While several of these films are known only to cineastes, a few like "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" (1972) and "The Marriage of Maria Braun" (1978) were art-house successes.

In the early 1980s, Ballhaus emigrated to the USA where he quickly established himself as a highly-regarded cameraman. His first American film was John Sayles' "Baby, It's You" (1982) and he has frequently collaborated with a number of major directors, including Mike Nichols, Martin Scorsese and James L Brooks. Ballhaus' style could be described as eclectic rather than easily recognizable, and he has proven equally comfortable with period dramas and contemporary comedies. His feel for illumination has allowed him facility with features that cover numerous stages in a character's life, whether in flashbacks or prologues. This was particularly true in his first network TV project in the USA, the Dustin Hoffman version of "Death of a Salesman" (CBS, 1985). Directed by Volker Schlondorff, the telefilm allowed Ballhaus to capture the brighter, higher keyed "look" of Willy Loman's recollections of the late 20s, a feat not accomplished on stage that was more true to playwright Arthur Miller's intent. Ballhaus earned an Oscar nomination for Brooks' "Broadcast News" (1987), in which the on-camera TV sections had to "feel" like real TV, while the narrative called for the behind-the-scenes meat of the film to have an urgency, but seem like real life. He earned a second Academy Award nomination in 1989 for "The Fabulous Baker Boys", a masterful piece of cinematography in which the air seemed to stand still in the lives of Beau and Jeff Bridges until Michelle Pfeiffer appears to stir up the atmosphere. Nichols' "Working Girl" (1988), was lit to offer the fantasy appeal Melanie Griffith has for the world in which she aspires to ascend.

Ballhaus' collaboration with Scorsese, who possess a keen instinct for camera placement and movement, began with "After Hours" (1985), which turned downtown Manhattan into an offbeat world. They followed with another urban setting in "The Color of Money" (1986), where Chicago became the unique location and as much a character in the film as its leads. "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988) had a searing, piercing sun which gave not only a sense of the Judean desert but also one of an almost holy spirit glistening the frames. Yet, for many cineastes, Ballhaus is better recognized for his ability in depicting spatial textures. One of his signature moments on film is in Scorsese's "GoodFellas" (1990) when Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is meeting Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) at a diner knowing Conway wants to "whack" him. The camera first is subjective, flowing through the diner from Liotta's point-of-view towards De Niro, the length of movement seeming both perilous and long. The actors sit at a booth in what might have been a dull two-shot, but the scene is given added intensity by its deep focus. Through the window in the background, life outside the diner is ongoing and continuous, in active depth; it is the same kind of shot which distinguished the films of Orson Welles. Even with features that the critics or audiences snubbed, such as "The Mambo Kings" (1992) and "The Age of Innocence" (1993), Ballhaus has been able to win applause for making the look of the film appealing and inviting.

Among Ballhaus' recent credits is Robert Redford's "Quiz Show" (1994), in which the Charles Van Doren character was made to seem angelic, the rosy quality of his cheeks playing to the underlining theme The cinematographer has also worked with director Wolfgang Peterson twice, on "Outbreak" (1995) and "Air Force One" (1997). His lensing of Barry Levinson's "Sleepers" (1996) mixed a period feel in the first act, a colorlessness (to focus on the emotions of the sexual abuse rather than the visual horror of it) for the first part of the second act, then offered a color burdened by shadows for the anguished denouement. Ballhaus reteamed with Mike Nichols for the politically-themed "Primary Colors" (1998).

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

DIRECTOR:

1.
  In Berlin (2009)

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Side by Side (2012)
2.
 Auge in Auge (2008)
3.
4.
 Fassbinder's Women (2000) Himself
7.
 Ehe der Maria Braun, Die (1979) Counsel--Anwalf
8.
 Kleine Godard, Der (1978) 2nd Film Director'S Cameraman
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

1970:
First collaboration with Rainer Werner Fassbinder "Whity"
1972:
Shot Fassbinder's "The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant"
1975:
Was cinematographer on Fassbinder's "Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven"
1978:
Last films with Fassbinder, "Despair", "The Stationmaster's Wife" and "The Marriage of Maria Braun"
1979:
Initial work for Volker Schlondorff, "Kaleidoskop: Valeska Gert, Nur zum Spess-nur zum Spiel"
1982:
Immigrated to USA
1982:
US film debut as director of photography, John Sayles' "Baby, It's You"
1985:
First collaboration with Martin Scorsese, "After Hours"
1985:
Worked in US TV for first time, "Death of a Salesman" (CBS), directed by Schlondorff
1986:
Shot "The Color of Money", directed by Scorsese and starring Paul Newman
1987:
Hired by Newman to shoot "The Glass Menagerie"
1987:
Nominated for an Academy Award for "Broadcast News", directed by James L Brooks
1988:
Shot Mike Nichols' "Working Girl", Frank Oz's "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ"
1989:
Nominated for a second Academy Award for "The Fabulous Baker Boys"
1990:
Reunited with Scorsese on "GoodFellas"
1992:
Served as cinematographer on "Bram Stoker's Dracula", directed by Francis Ford Coppola
1993:
Began teaching at the University of Hamburg
1994:
Reunited with James L Brooks for "I'll Do Anything"
1994:
Was director of photography on "Quiz Show", directed by Robert Redford
1995:
Worked with director Wolfgang Peterson on "Outbreak"
1997:
Again teamed with Peterson on "Air Force One"
1998:
Shot "Primary Colors" for Mike Nichols
1999:
Was cinematographer on the overblown feature adaptation of the TV series "Wild Wild West"
2000:
Again partnered with Nichols on the comedy "What Planet Are You From?"
2000:
Second collaboration with Redford as director, "The Legend of Bagger Vance"
2001:
Shot "Investigating Sex" for director Alan Rudolph
2002:
Was director of photography for Scorsese's "Gangs of New York"; received a BAFTA nomination for Best Cinematography
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Notes

"When I was 17, I watched Max Ophuls direct 'Lola Montes'. I was fascinated by the cinematographer's use of light and shadows. I discovered cinematography isn't about getting the right exposure on film. It's about storytelling, and translating words into images. My dream is to shoot a picture with as little dialogue as possible. You should be able to turn the sound off and not lose meaning." --Michael Ballhaus (quoted in Eastman Motion Picture Films ad, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, March 5, 1991)

"With all the complex action scenes, this film ['Air Force One'] was definitely the most technically difficult I've ever shot." --Ballhaus in FILM & VIDEO, July 1997

Companions close complete companion listing

wife:
Helga Mavia Betten. Married on August 23, 1958.

Family close complete family listing

mother:
Lenna Huter. Actor.
father:
Oskar Ballhaus. Actor.
son:
Florian Ballhaus. Camera operator. Has worked on films with father.
son:
Jan Sebastian Ballhaus. Production assistant. Has worked on films with father.
daughter-in-law:
Pam Katz. Camera assistant. Wife of Florian Ballhaus; has worked on films with father-in-law.
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

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