By Bob Fisher
Michael Ballhaus, ASC is the 2010 recipient of the Plus Camerimage Lifetime Achievement Award. The presentation will be made during the 18th Annual International Festival of the Art of Cinematography at its new home in Bydgoszcz, Poland from November 27 through December 4.
Ballhaus has compiled more than 100 credits during his storied career. He earned Oscar nominations for Broadcast News in 1988, The Fabulous Baker Boys in 1990 and Gangs of New York in 2003. His colleagues in the American Society of Cinematographers presented the International Achievement Award to Ballhaus in 2007.
Martin Scorsese and Michael Ballhaus
"Michael Ballhaus was chosen for this tribute by his peers who are both awed and inspired by the breadth and scope of his artistry, “ said 2007 ASC Awards Committee Chairman Russ Alsobrook at the time. “He is an extraordinary artist whose films have entertained and informed countless millions of fans around the world.”
Ballhaus blazed a nontraditional career path. He was born and raised in the Bavaria region of Germany. His parents were stage actors and his uncle Carl Ballhaus was a thespian during the early days of the German cinema.
His parents founded a theater company when Ballhaus was 10. They moved into an old castle, which housed a theater and rooms for 20 actors. By the time he was 12, Ballhaus was taking pictures of people in the cast, processing the film and making prints.
During his late teens, he spent a week behind the scenes on a film set watching Max Ophuls direct Lola Montes. The cinematographer was Christian Matras.
“He was a Frenchman who didn’t speak German,” Ballhaus said. “I watched him communicate with the director and gaffer without words. That was an important experience. I also learned that actors need a lot of love and respect, so they can open their hearts to the audience.”
After Ballhaus graduated from high school, he was hired by a local still photographer who gave him a Rolliflex camera and assigned him to take pictures at a wedding. Ballhaus earned a living as a still photographer for several years. His next job was at a television station in Baden-Baden, where he was a video camera operator.
When Ballhaus was 25 years old, he teamed him up with director Peter Lilienthal. He shot three or four movies a year that aired on the television station.
“I learned by doing, watching cinematographers at work and going to movies,” he said. “I saw some films 15 times. My heroes were Italian and French directors and cinematographers who were experimenting with film noir. I saw every movie Sven Nykvist (ASC) shot. I learned by watching how he photographed faces and eyes.”
During the mid-1960s, in addition to doing freelance work, Ballhaus was the cinematography instructor at a new film school in Berlin. In 1971, he got a phone call from Ulli Lommel, an actor-producer who he had worked with on a couple of films.
“Ulli asked if I was interested in working with (Rainer Werner) Fassbinder on a film called Whity,” he said.
That was the beginning of a nine-year collaboration with Fassbinder on 15 films, many of them landmarks of the German New Wave, including The Marriage of Maria Braun, The Stationmaster’s Wife, Fox and His Friends and Martha. “He pushed me to do the impossible, and I tried to find ways to do it,” Ballhaus said. “I learned about the importance of films having a visual rhythm.”
In 1982, Ballhaus shot Dear Mr. Wonderful with Lilienthal at the helm. It was the first of the many films that he has shot in the United States. John Sayles brought Ballhaus onboard to shoot Baby, It’s You the following year.
"That was the first time I used a Steadicam,” he said. “I was lucky. Garrett Brown was the operator. We also used a crane. That opened a whole new world.”
Michael Ballhaus on the set of Departed.
Martin Scorsese saw scenes that Ballhaus shot while he was looking at footage of an actor he was considering casting in The Last Temptation of Christ, and brought Ballhaus onboard. However, production was postponed. Their first co-venture was After Hours, an independent film produced in 1985.
While he was strolling on a street in Manhattan that year, Ballhaus ran into Volker Schlöndorff, a director who he had been friends with in Germany.
Volker told me that he was going to direct a television movie based on Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman in the leading role,” Ballhaus recalled. “I told him I knew every line by heart, because my father played Willy Loman. I had seen the play at least 30 times.”
Ballhaus collaborated with Schlondorff on the production of the television movie, which earned three 1985 Emmy awards and seven other nominations.
“I was shooting a behind-the-scenes film,” Bill Dill, ASC recalled. “In one scene, Willy Loman goes to a hotel to meet his father and discovers that he is there with a woman. That shatters his image of his father. The confrontation was staged with both of them standing next to the bed. Michael said that it didn’t feel right. They called Arthur Miller, and after a conversation with him, Michael said it made sense for Willy to sit on the bed with his father hovering over him. That set the right emotional tone.”
The following year, Ballhaus teamed up with Scorsese on The Color of Money. It was the second of their seven collaborations (so far), followed by Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, The Last Temptation of Christ, Gangs of New York and The Departed.
Broadcast News was directed by James Brooks. The drama story unfolds mainly in the newsroom at a television station. Ballhaus and Brooks prepared by being spectators at network television stations in New York and Washington, D.C.
They produced the film mainly on an office set with fluorescent lighting. Ballhaus made selective, painterly use of “a little eye light and backlight” to heighten the drama.
The Fabulous Baker Boys was produced with a modest $8 million budget with Steve Kloves, who wrote the screenplay, in his directorial debut.
“We had a great cast, including Jeff and Beau Bridges and Michelle Pfeiffer,” Ballhaus said. “The story defined the lighting. The early scenes were filmed in dark, dingy bars where the Bakers are performing. We made the lighting more glamorous when they are playing in posh bars later in the story. I also made the light on Michelle’s face a little harder and harsher than usual, because it was right for her character.”
Gangs of New York takes place during the 1840s through the 1860s. It was produced almost entirely on sets at Cinecitta studios in Rome, Italy. Ballhaus credited production designer Dante Ferretti, Scorsese and the cast with giving him the opportunity to create images that took audiences on a journey back in time.
That’s just a snapshot of the career of an extraordinary human being who has made an indelible impression on the art of filmmaking. A short list of his other memorable credits includes Something’s Gotta Give, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Primary Colors, Air Force One, Dracula, Postcards from the Edge and The House on Carroll Street.