German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (1931-2017) has died at 81, in the middle of a retrospective of the filmmaker for whom he shot some of his greatest movies.

The British Film Institute has been screening a selection of films by the German polymath Rainer Werner Fassbinder in London, many of which have been lensed by Ballhaus. The cinematographer was a member of Fassbinder’s group of frequent collaborators. Ballhaus’s work covered a range of styles – documentary, expressionism, glossiness, realism – and his camera, whether stationary or on the move, brilliantly illuminated Fassbinder’s relentless attacks on social conventions and sexual norms and his critique of capitalism.

Michael Ballhaus. Photo credit: Franz Richter/Wikipedia images [Licensed under CC by 2.5]
Michael Ballhaus. Photo credit: Franz Richter/Wikipedia images [Licensed under CC by 2.5]

Ballhaus, who was born in 1935, died in Berlin. He is survived by his second wife, filmmaker Sherry Hormann, and his sons Sebastian and Florian – the latter is also a cinematographer.

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The Marriage of Maria Braun (1976).

One of Fassbinder’s greatest films, which also counts as one of Ballhaus’s most accomplished works, is The Marriage of Maria Braun (1976), starring Hanna Schygulla as a wartime bride who takes on a series of lovers in her fight for survival. Ballhaus worked with Fassbinder on 17 films, including Chinese Roulette (its 360-degree camera movements are legendary), Martha (about a woman in an abusive marriage) and The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (set in a single room). Fassbinder’s widely documented verbal and physical abuse of his collaborators finally ended the working relationship, but in the meantime, Ballhaus had produced some of cinema’s most indelible images.

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Chinese Roulette (1976).

Ballhaus’s last film with Fassbinder was Lili Marleen (1981). The second phase of his career in Hollywood, one that got him far greater recognition than the low-budget and mostly locally distributed films by Fassbinder, began with John Sayles’s romantic drama Baby It’s You in 1983. Two years later, Ballhaus shot Martin Scorsese’s black comedy After Hours, set over the course of a single night.

Ballhaus and Scorsese began a lengthy collaboration, producing The Color of Money (1986), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Goodfellas (1990), The Age of Innocence (1993), Gangs of New York (2002) and The Departed (2006).

The Color of Money, for which Paul Newman won his first Oscar for Best Actor, is about a pool hustler who returns to the game to defeat his former protege (Tom Cruise). Ballhaus beautifully lit the grungy, low-lit pool parlours where the game is a metaphor for life itself.

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The Color of Money (1986).

Ballhaus’s most acclaimed work with Scorsese is in the Mafia drama Goodfellas. The single-take tracking shot that marks the initiation of Henry Hill into the Mafia family has been widely imitated, including in Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1998).

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Goodfellas (1990).

Ballahaus’s Hollywood credits in the 1980s include several acclaimed movies, such as James L Brooks’s Broadcast News (1987), Mike Nichols’s Working Girl (1988) and Steve Kloves’s The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). Ballhaus was nominated for Oscars for Broadcast News and The Fabulous Baker Boys.

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Broadcast News (1987).

Among Ballhaus’s important movies in the ’90s were Frank Oz’s What About Bob? (1991), Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994), Barry Levinson’s Sleepers (1996) and Wolfgang Petersen’s Air Force One (1997). His most striking contribution to the decade is Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Francis Ford Coppola’s inventive retelling of the vampire legend.

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Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).

After working with Scorsese for the last time on The Departed in 2006, Ballhaus shot his final feature, Sherry Hormann’s German indie 3096, in 2013. In between, in 2009, he directed with Ciro Cappellari In Berlin, a documentary about the city 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Among the more unusual credits Ballhaus stacked up were for Madonna’s music videos for the songs True Blue and Papa Don’t Preach. Both videos were directed by James Foley, whose 1984 debut Reckless was shot by Ballhaus.

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Papa Don’t Preach (1983).