German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who shot Martin Scorsese’s best picture winner “The Departed” and helped numerous Scorsese films achieve their singular visuals, has died at his Berlin apartment after a short illness. He was 81.
His publicist and the American Society of Cinematographers confirmed his death.
Ballhaus was nominated three times for the Academy Award for cinematography — in 1987 for “Broadcast News,” in 1989 for “The Fabulous Baker Boys” and in 2002 for Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.”
His other credits included five other films for Scorsese — “After Hours,” “The Color of Money,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “The Age of Innocence,” and “Goodfellas,” — along with Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” ”Working Girl,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “Primary Colors,” “What about Bob?” and “Quiz Show.”
Ballhaus began his career in 1971 with Rainer Werner Fassbinder with “Whity” and he lensed more than a dozen films for the iconic German director including “The Marriage of Marie Braun” and “Lili Marleen.”
Working with Fassbinder on the film “Martha,” he developed the 360-degree tracking shot that became one of the signature elements of his style. An article on the Goethe Institut website described the distinctive look of a Ballhaus film, “Every film is stylistically innovative; and yet, in every Ballhaus film, we recognize the camera’s mobility, its unique dynamism, and the scene’s polish. It’s said that a Ballhaus film always looks more expensive than it really was.”
In 2014, Ballhaus released his autobiography, “Bilder im Kopf,” in which he discusses the gradual loss of his vision due to glaucoma. The Berlin Film Festival honored Ballhaus last year with an honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement.
He told Variety’s Ed Meza that his long collaboration with Fassbinder prepared him for his career in the U.S.
“It helped a lot because he was not an easy director. He was very hard on me and he was very pushy. He always cracked the whip to be fast and not to spend too much time. So I learned to be fast and still tried to be good. That was a big help later when I started shooting in the States. It was also a big help because he was so temperamental that from then on I knew I could handle every director in the world.”
He also said it was difficult working on “Goodfellas” because of his aversion to violence.
“Yes, I have a problem with violence. I must admit that. Marty (Scorsese) 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.” There was a lot of violence and that was sometimes hard for me. He always wanted ‘a little more.'”