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Michael Ballhaus turns 80

Margit Eberlein / egAugust 4, 2015

He has worked with directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Wolfgang Petersen. The achievements of this German cinematographer make him one of the best in the world.

Michael Ballhaus, Copyright: Ralf Hirschberger/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Hirschberger

Renowned for his legendary 360-degree tracking shots, Michael Ballhaus was nicknamed "The Flying Eye" in Hollywood. In over 50 years behind the camera, he filmed stars such as Michelle Pfeiffer in "The Fabulous Baker Boys" and Daniel Day-Lewis in "Gangs of New York."

Born in Berlin in 1935, Ballhaus started working for television productions in Baden-Baden. After visiting a film set for the first time - the production of "Lola Montez," directed by Max Ophüls - he decided to become a cameraman. The director was a friend of his parents, both actors.

Ballhaus then started learning photography and working as a camera assistant.

Initial films with Rainer Werner Fassbinder

A crucial moment in the career of the young cinematographer was his meeting with the director Rainer Werner Fassbinder at the end of the 1960s.

They created 16 films together. In movies like "Martha" or "Fox and His Friends," Ballhaus experimented with new camera techniques. In 1979, "The Marriage of Maria Braun" was a worldwide success. It was also their last collaboration.

His wife Helga, an actress and film set designer, and the couple's two sons always accompanied him during shoots. The younger son, Florian Ballhaus, remembers this well. "My brother and I actually grew up on film sets," he said. "We spent lots of time on Fassbinder's sets. He even shot one of his films in our house. One year I spent my Easter holidays on the production of 'Chinese Roulette.' It was a very interesting experience for a nine-year-old boy."

Pairing up with Martin Scorsese

Along with the Fassbinder's successful films came recognition for Michael Ballhaus' cinematography in the US. In the early 80s, he and his family moved to Los Angeles.

As he'd previously done with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, he formed a highly creative team with director Martin Scorsese. Their seven collaborations include the movies "Goodfellas," "Gangs of New York" and "The Departed."

In Hollywood, Michael Ballhaus was usually hired as the director of photography. Rather than sitting behind the camera, he was in charge of the camera team. He made sure the ideas and visions of the film director would translate into images. And he was known for his good humor on film sets.

Passing on knowledge

Even in the US, Michael Ballhaus kept bringing his sons along with him to sets. Both ended up working in the film industry.

Sebastian is a producer, whereas Florian became a successful Hollywood cinematographer. "The funny thing is, as a kid it's hard to believe that you can learn so much from your own father," he said. "I only realized this a lot later, when I started working as a cameraman."

In 2007, Michael Ballhaus moved back to Berlin. Lecturing in film schools, he shared his knowledge and experience with many aspiring cinematographers throughout Germany.

In 2013, after his last film "3096 Days," which tells the story of the abducted Austrian girl Natascha Kampusch, Michael Ballhaus retired from filmmaking.

Last year, he announced that he was suffering from glaucoma, a disease which is slowly taking away his eyesight.

After the pictures, the sounds

Without the disease, Michael Ballhaus would probably have continued working. "The loss of eyesight is obviously very tragic, especially for someone who is so visual and has used his eyes so much and achieved so much with them. But it is also impressive to see how well he deals with it," says his son Florian Ballhaus.

In 2011, Michael Ballhaus remarried. With his present wife, the film director Sherry Hormann, he makes the best of his situation. After a life of images, Ballhaus says he's now discovering the world of sounds.