Cinematographer. Nationality: German. Born: Berlin, 5 August 1935; family moved to Bavaria 1942; son of the actors Oskar Ballhaus and Lenna Huter. Career: Inspired to become a cinematographer after watching Ophüls's Lola Montès , 1950s; studied photography; employed as assistant cameraman for television; promoted to Director of Photography, 1960; began collaboration with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971; settled in the United States, 1982. Awards: German Film Awards Film Strip of Gold-Outstanding Individual Achievement in Cinematography, for Die Bitteren Tranen der Petra von Kant, 1972; German Film Awards Film Strip of Gold-Outstanding Individual Achievement in Cinematography, for Despair, 1978; National Society of Film Critics Best Cinematography, Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award Best Cinematography, for The Fabulous
Whity (Fassbinder); Sand (Politzsch); Warnung vor einer Heiligen Nutte ( Beware of a Holy Whore ) (Fassbinder)
Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant ( The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant ) (Fassbinder)
Tschetan, der Indianerjunge (Bohm)
Faustrecht der Freiheit ( Fox and his Friends ) (Fassbinder)
Satansbraten ( Satan's Brew ) (Fassbinder); Sommergäste ( Summer Guests ) (Stein); Adolf & Marlene (Lommel); Also es war so . . . (Thome); Chinasisches Roulette ( Chinese Roulette ) (Fassbinder); Ich will doch nur, das Ihr mich liebt ( I Only Want You to Love Me ) (Fassbinder)
Mütter Küsters fahrt zum Himmel ( Mütter Küsters Goes to Heaven ) (Fassbinder); Frauen in New York (Fassbinder)
Despair (Fassbinder); Venedig—die Insel der Glückseligen am Rande am des Untergangs ( The Team ; Venice ) (Rischert); Bolwieser ( The Stationmaster's Wife ) (Fassbinder); Deutschland im Herbst ( Germany in Autumn ) (Fassbinder); Die Erste Polka (Emmerich); Der Kleine Godard (Fassbinder)
Kaleidoskop: Valeska Gert ( For Fun—for Play ) (Schlöndorff); Die Ehe der Maria Braun ( The Marriage of Maria Braun ) (Fassbinder) (+ro as Counsel); Deutscher Frühlung
Der Aufstand ( The Uprising ) (Lilienthal); Gross und Klein (Stein)
Dear Mr. Wonderful ( Citydreams ) (Lilienthal); Friends and Husbands ( Heller Wahn ) (von Trotta); Der Zauberberg (Geissendörfer)
Malou (Merrapfel); Baby It's You (Sayles); Edithes Tagebuch ( Edith's Diary ) (Geissendörfer)
Reckless (Foley); Old Enough (Silver); Heartbreakers (Roth); Das Autogram (Lilienthal)
After Hours (Scorsese); The Death of a Salesman (Schlöndorff); Private Conversations (Blackwood)
The Color of Money (Scorsese); Under the Cherry Moon (Prince)
Broadcast News (James L. Brooks); The Glass Menagerie (Newman)
Baja Oklahoma (Roth); The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese); Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Oz); Working Girl (Nichols); The House on Carroll Street (Yates)
The Fabulous Baker Boys (Kloves)
GoodFellas (Scorsese); Postcards from the Edge (Nichols)
Guilty by Suspicion (Winkler); What about Bob? (Oz); The Mambo Kings (Glimcher); Fear No Evil (Winkler)
Bram Stoker's Dracula (Coppola)
The Age of Innocence (Scorsese)
I'll Do Anything (James L. Brooks)
Der Tote vom anderen Ufer (Krawinkel); Sleepers (Levinson)
Air Force One (Petersen)
Primary Colors (Nichols)
Wild Wild West (Sonnenfeld)
What Planet Are You From? (Nichols); The Legend of Bagger Vance (Redford); The Gangs of New York (Scorsese)
Fassbinder Produces Film No. 8 (d?for TV)
Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography (Glassman and McCarthy) (appearance)
The Thirteenth Floor (Rusnak) (exec pr)
Film , no. 4, April 1985.
Cinéma (Paris), no. 1, January 1986.
Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 397, June 1987.
Films in Review (Denville), November 1987.
EPD Film (Frankfurt/Main), March 1994.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 67, no. 11, November 1986, and vol. 68, no. 11, November 1987.
American Film (Washington, D.C.), vol. 13, no. 3, December 1987.
Film Comment (New York), vol. 25, no. 5, September/October 1989.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 72, no. 3, March 1991.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), November 1992.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), October 1993.
Film & TV Kameramann (Munich), February 1995.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), October 1996.
Variety (New York), 21 July 1997.
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For decades, foreign cinematographers had little chance of getting anywhere in Hollywood. Nevertheless, a loosening of union restrictions in the late 1970s enabled a host of European "lensers" to colonize a corner of the American film industry. The new wave of emigré camera wizards—Nykvist, Storaro, and Robby Müller among them—had become so influential by 1989 that one critic, Todd McCarthy, was able to write in Film Comment : "The Yanks have been virtually wiped off the map . . . foreign lensers now utterly dominate."
At the helm of the invasion was an unassuming German cameraman, Michael Ballhaus—a relative of Max Ophüls—whose infatuation with the celluloid muse had started when he saw Ophüls at work on Lola Montès . Ballhaus cut his teeth as a cinematographer on pictures by several of the pioneers of the so-called "New German Cinema." Most notably, he shot 15 films for that tyrant of excess, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Working with Fassbinder was never easy. Contemporaries recall him as a fiercely jealous, insanely competitive figure, a dynamic and mercurial director who liked to engender a mood of tension and fear on the set. Early collaborations between Fassbinder and Ballhaus hardly can be said to be distinguished by their cinematography. Fassbinder, in those days, operated at a break-neck pace, and was not overly concerned with allowing his cameraman the leisure to devise complex lighting patterns. Pictures such as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant were lit rapidly and crudely, and compulsive as these tales of role playing and sexual jealously may be to watch, they are certainly not shining advertisements for Ballhaus's skills.
Later collaborations, notably Chinese Roulette and The Marriage of Maria Braun , have more to recommend them. The former is set in a country house, and is full of exquisite pastoral compositions of twilights and dawns, shot in the "magic hour." The latter recreates postwar Germany in all its speedy splendor as the country rollicks into the Adenauer years. Moreover, in The Marriage of Maria Braun , Ballhaus does for Hanna Schygulla what von Sternberg did for Dietrich in The Blue Angel . (Ballhaus has a knack for photographing female stars: his work with Schygulla prefigures his later Hollywood movies such as Working Girl and The Fabulous Baker Boys , where he frames Melanie Griffith and Michelle Pfeiffer, respectively, with the same kind of teasing deference accorded Garbo in the 1930s.) Fassbinder's voracious appetite for cocaine in his latter years was a source of much stress to his colleagues: it is little wonder that around the time of his death Ballhaus fled west.
In 1984, he shot his first American film, Baby It's You , for John Sayles, and in his subsequent assignments, Ballhaus has shown extraordinary versatility. He has worked within the constraints of theatrical adaptation, shooting a dim and lugubrious Death of a Salesman for Volker Schlöndorff as well as Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie for Paul Newman. Ballhaus has shot super-slick Mike Nichols movies such as Working Girl , Postcards from the Edge , Primary Colors, and What Planet Are You From? , which showed him as equally adept at photographing the urban sprawl of New York, the many shades of blue of California, and the vistas of the American South and Southwest. He was just as expert when working on soundstages, where he filmed practically all of Bram Stoker's Dracula for Francis Ford Coppola. Perhaps missing his former mentor, he even teamed up with another egotist, namely Prince, to shoot Under the Cherry Moon . Established as a veteran, he nurtured Steve Kloves in his remarkably assured directing debut, The Fabulous Baker Boys . While his well-earned reputation as a solid and reliable professional won him a range of other high-prestige Hollywood assignments, Ballhaus probably will be best remembered for his work with Scorsese; for the elaborate circular tracks he laid down so that the camera could prowl round the pool table as Newman and Cruise hustled their way through The Color of Money , and, by way of contrast, for his filming of dust and desert in The Last Temptation of Christ , and the elegant period detail of 1870s New York in The Age of Innocence. He certainly reached some kind of peak with his incredibly fluid camera work, perectly complementing the quick-fire narrative, on the brilliant GoodFellas .
In Europe, Ballhaus asserts, filmmaking is by necessity an art: budgets are tight, and there is rarely the prospect of making much money. In the States, though, film is a business. One senses that Ballhaus is happier in Hollywood than he ever was in Germany. For a start, American directors are far less likely to interfere with the lighting than are their European counterparts. After his years with the erratic Fassbinder, the strict hierarchies of the Hollywood scene, where the director of photography rarely operates the camera and where everybody knows his or her role, must come as something of a relief. Having served his apprenticeship shooting films high on concept but low on finance and unlikely to reach a mass audience, Ballhaus—like fellow countryman Wolfgang Petersen, for whom he photographed Outbreak and Air Force One— now shows himself to be a consummate Hollywood professional, delighted with the opportunities that he is offered.
—Geoffrey Macnab, updated by Rob Edelman