Spiegel Online is among the many German news outlets reporting that the great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus has died at the age of 81. Ballhaus worked with Rainer Werner Fassbinder on sixteen films and with Martin Scorsese on seven.

The single most famous shot he worked on may well be a complexly choreographed 360-degree circle around Margit Carstensen and Karlheinz Böhm in Fassbinder's Martha (1974). Tom Tykwer, in a book-length conversation with Ballhaus that appeared in 2002 under the title Der fliegende Auge (The Flying Eye) asked him about this one.

Ballhaus (my translation): "If you look closely, you can see that Böhm is stepping over tracks. But that wasn't enough for Fassbinder. He always wanted to turn it up a notch, so the two of them had to circle around each other once more. That was the peak, of course, driving the effect to the top. The scene now elicits the rapture we'd intended it to."


Ballhaus was nominated three times for an Oscar for his work on James L. Brooks's Broadcast News (1987), Steve Kloves's The Fabulous Baker Boys (1999) and Scorsese's Gangs of New York (2002), and he won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Cinematography for Goodfellas. In 2016, the Berlin International Film Festival awarded him an honorary Golden Bear.

Updates, 4/16: "One of the most remarkable cinematographers of his generation, Ballhaus brought the expressive and fluid camera of the classic studio long take—exemplified by director Max Ophüls, a family friend—into the strange new world of lightweight dolly tracks, zoom lenses, and Steadicam, and in the process created some of the most iconic and breathtaking shots of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s," writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club.

Ballhaus was, of course, "responsible for Goodfellas’ most famous shot," Hunter Harris reminds us at Vulture. "Early in the film, Henry Hill takes his future wife Karen on their first proper date. As he hands off his keys to the valet and leads her down the kitchen entrance of the Copacabana, the camera trails behind them…. You don’t have to know anything about steadicams to feel the specialness of that scene. It’s the crowning moment of Ballhaus’s long collaboration with Martin Scorsese…. The Copacabana long take gets all the attention, but, for me, their first collaboration, After Hours, is even better. The film moves fiercely and freely around a wild portrait of downtown New York City in the mid-’80s, zooming in on and whizzing between absurdities."

"Yes, I have a problem with violence," Ballhaus told Ed Meza in Variety last year. "I must admit that. Marty was used to violence; he knew it so well. It was very hard sometimes, but when you work with a guy like him, and he’s such a great director, you have to admit that it’s good that way, especially in a movie like Goodfellas."


"Much of the visual dynamism associated with Fassbinder and Scorsese must be credited also to Ballhaus," writes Ryan Gilbey in the Guardian. "There are the complicated but elegant compositions in Fassbinder, for example, where closeups, reaction shots and the simultaneous movement of actors are often incorporated into a single frame without recourse to cutting… There are the accelerated zooms and dolly shots in Scorsese’s films, where the camera rushes toward a face or an object to afford it special emphasis."

The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy: "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… 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."

"Even when the film failed—if anyone out there has ever had a kind word to say about Wild Wild West, I still have yet to hear it—the cinematography was never the problem," writes Peter Sobczynski at RogerEbert.com. "Flashy when he needed to be and gracefully restrained when the material called for it, Ballhaus was a cinematographer who had an almost preternatural intuition for finding just the right visual style for the material at hand."


"The Berlinale enjoyed a long and close history with Michael Ballhaus, who was a frequent guest at the festival with his films, and served as president of the International Jury in 1990…. At the lens alongside great American directors such as Martin Scorsese, he had a decisive effect on the lighting and look of US moviemaking."

At IndieWire, Chris O'Falt writes about "13 Images That Capture His Style."

Update, 4/18: "All cinematographers have their own philosophies about the art form," writes Stephen Pizzello in an extensive overview of the career for American Cinematographer. "Some advocate tableau-like composition, while others prefer more kinetic displays of camera magic. Ballhaus unquestionably belonged to the latter camp, but he had a simple, sensible explanation for his roving eye: 'If it’s a movie, it’s got to move.'"

Update, 4/29: In Fox and His Friends (1975), "almost every significant character in the film is a gay man, and the film is Fassbinder’s one drama to portray that segment of the German population in a realistic, flawed and sympathetic light wholly at odds with the portrayals seen in Hollywood during that same period," writes Nathaniel Thompson at Streamline. "So, how does Ballhaus figure in all this? Plenty, and it’s evident in the evocative way he adopts color palettes and textures as the story progresses."