Michael Ballhaus – The Flying Eye

German-born cameraman Michael Ballhaus significantly influenced both German film during one of its most interesting phases, as well as Hollywood's film aesthetic.

In the 1960's and 1970's, he worked with major German directors such as Peter Lilienthal, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, and Volker Schlöndorff. In the early 1980s, he launched a second career in America and soon became one of Hollywood's most sought-after cameraman.

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Author: Irene Höfer
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Born in Berlin in 1935, Ballhaus began working as a cameraman for the Südwestfunk in Baden-Baden following a photography apprenticeship. His friendship with director Peter Lilienthal led in 1968 to a teaching position at the newly-founded German Film and TV Academy in Berlin. Ballhaus describes the critical relationship with his students and the student movement, as well as the opportunity to experiment at the film school, as extraordinarily fruitful for his camera work.

His work with Rainer Werner Fassbinder began in 1970 with the film Whity. It was at this time that Ballhaus developed his unique style. Fassbinder filmed primarily on location, a particular challenge for a cameraman. Furthermore, Fassbinder often worked with only a few cuts, requiring complex tracking shots. In 1973, for the film Martha, Ballhaus and Fassbinder developed the legendary 360-degree tracking shot, in which the camera moves in a circle around the actor. This became a hallmark of Ballhaus' style. Many of Fassbinder's films were virtually choreographed for the camera. Fassbinder's interest in cinematic innovation, his concentrated work habits, and breathtaking speed created challenges for Ballhaus which influenced his technically complex and efficient style of working.

Following the Fassbinder film Die Ehe der Maria Braun, the last one which he and Ballhaus worked on together, Ballhaus began a second career in America in the early 1980's. His first film in America, Dear Mr. Wonderful, was made in 1981 with director Peter Lilienthal and a completely American team. An ingenious interpreter of Martin Scorsese's visual world in such films as After Hours, GoodFellas and Gangs of New York, Michael Ballhaus became one of Hollywood's most sought-after cameramen.

In the United States, Ballhaus worked not only with Scorsese but with directors such as John Sales, James Foley, Paul Newman, Peter Yates, Jim Brooks, Frank Oz, Steve Kloves, Francis Ford Coppola, Wolfgang Petersen, Robert Redford, and Mike Nichols, the last of whom said that "working with Michael is like being in heaven, only you don’t have to die for it.”

Ballhaus prefers cameras on tracks, although he has also perfected the use of the steady-cam in breathtaking ways. When he uses the hand-held camera, he loves it when the camera "breathes“. Ballhaus expertly creates "the Vertigo effect" by pulling back the camera while at the same time zooming forwards. He uses up to five f-stops in a single shot and sometimes, within a scene, the speed-change, in which the speed of the film is altered from top to bottom. These techniques, always employed to serve the story, constitute Ballhaus's distinctive aesthetic. In many of his films, Ballhaus tests the limits of technical viability. 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.

Director Tom Tykwer describes Ballhaus' secret in "The Flying Eye: Michael Ballhaus speaks to Tom Tykwer", published by Berlin Verlag in 2002: Ballhaus’ curiosity about cinematic innovation has never flagged, and at the same time, he never forgets that at the heart of every good film is a person with existential conflicts. In fascinating fashion, Ballhaus harmonizes an intimate look at his film figures with technical complexity.

The book The Flying Eye: Michael Ballhaus speaks to Tom Tykwer was published by Berlin Verlag.
ISBN 3-8270-0460-8 © 2002 Berlin Verlag GmbH.
Goethe-Institut e. V. 2006
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