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Legendary cinematographer Michael Ballhaus has died

Nadine Wojcik kbm
April 13, 2017

Michael Ballhaus filmed with famed directors like Martin Scorsese and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The cinematographer from Berlin was adored in Hollywood for his creative techniques. He has passed away at age 81.

Michael Ballhaus
Image: picture-alliance /dpa/A. Warmuth

Librarian Martha rushes toward businessman Helmut, clearly unsettled. When she stops in front of him, the viewer's perspective shifts to the mismatched pair. The camera movement picks up the pace, creating a kind of visual whirlpool.

It's the first "Ballhaus Kreisel," or "Ballhaus whirl," as Michael Ballhaus' 360-degree camera movements came to be known. That's part of what made the German cameraman world famous - and a role model for many others in the industry.

It was Ballhaus' work on German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Martha" in 1974 that first caught Hollywood's attention. Directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Redford and, most of all, Martin Scorsese - Ballhaus' "favorite director" -, came to appreciate the Berliner's "flying eye" and experimental approach.

Michael Ballhaus is dead

Working with Ballhaus was like being in heaven without dying, Scorsese once said in an interview. The two made seven films together, including "Gangs of New York" in 2002 and "Departed" in 2006 - Ballhaus' last Hollywood film.

Growing up with film

A visit to a film set in 1955 first inspired Michael Ballhaus' career choice. He watched Max Ophüls film "Lola Montez." The director was a friend of Ballhaus' parents, who were both actors. Then 18 years old, the young Michael was fascinated by the world of film, and decided to train as a photographer and later as a camera assistant.

Ballhaus started out making several television films for southern German broadcaster SWR, where he climbed the ladder to head cameraman in just six years. Although he was working for television and not for cinema, he came into contact with Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1970; the two are said to have inspired each other on 15 subsequent films.

Ballhaus (left) and Scorcese working on "Departed" in 2009
Ballhaus (left) and Scorcese working on "Departed" in 2009Image: picture alliance/United Archives

It was "The Marriage of Maria Braun" that launched both to international fame in 1979. The film was also the last collaboration between Fassbinder and Ballhaus. A short time later, the cinematographer was discovered by Hollywood.

Ballhaus brought his family along

Ballhaus' wife Helga, who was an actress and production designer herself, accompanied him to film shoots, as did their two sons. The younger son, Florian Ballhaus, recalls growing up on film sets.

"My brother and I … spent a lot of time on Fassbinder sets. And we even shot a film at our house. I spent my Easter break on the set of 'Chinese Roulette.' And that was a very interesting experience for a nine-year-old," said Florian Ballhaus.

Michael Ballhaus also brought his sons to film assignments in the US. As a result, both now work in film: Sebastian is in production, while Florian, like his father, is a successful cameraman in Hollywood.

"The funny thing is that at the beginning you always think you can't learn that much from your own father. But it was much later, after I'd started to film myself, that I noticed I could," said Florian Ballhaus.

Return to Germany

Michael Ballhaus at 2016 Berlinale
Ballhaus was recognized for his life achievement at the 2016 BerlinaleImage: picture-alliance/Xinhua/Z. Fan

In 2006, his wife Helga died in Los Angeles and Michael Ballhaus returned to his birth place, Berlin. He passed on his experience and knowledge to countless films students in Germany.

In 2011, Ballhaus married director Sherry Hormann, with whom he made his last film, "3096," about the kidnapping of Austrian girl Natascha Kampusch. Shortly after, he began to suffer from an eye disease and gradually lost his sight.

"The story with his eyesight is of course very tragic for someone who is so visual and who used his eyes so much and achieved so much with them," said Florian Ballhaus. "But how well he dealt with it was also impressive."

Michael Ballhaus died peacefully in his Berlin apartment on April 12 after suffering a brief illness. He leaves behind an oeuvre encompassing some 80 feature films.