For me behind the camera, it was an act of love.

There are many films in which the camera focuses on the actors. And there are a few masterpieces in which the lens bores into the minds of the protagonists. The 360° tracking shot invented by Michael Ballhaus went down in film history as an example of the latter. Rainer Werner Fassbinder made use of it in his films to create the tension between the characters in the context of the spacially claustrophobic constriction of society. Martin Scorsese used the shot as a breathless and wordless moment of recognition, be it of the excesses of violence in Goodfellas or the magic of love in The Age of Innocence. The fact that Michael Ballhaus made 16 films with the one director and seven with the other shows that he was more than just the man behind the camera. Rather, he was the man who created the visual spaces suited to their directorial visions, as a partner, an ally and a director of photography.

In 2007, Ballhaus announced his retirement from Hollywood after 47 years and more than one hundred films, which turned his eye for light and spaces, his sense for evocative and moving pictures into a legend. He grew up as part of his parent’s theatre in Bavaria, completed a classical photographer’s training and got into German television in the 60s, a time of change. Young filmmakers such as Hans W. Geißendörfer and Fassbinder had declared the old cinema dead and were creating new material, new faces and new pictures whose depth Ballhaus brought into focus from behind the lens.

This independent spirit, the break with convention and the use of the picture as bearer of a story took Ballhaus to the USA at the beginning of the 1980s. Applying not only his visual imagination but also his aptitude for working fast and precisely to independent American films, he soon found himself filming productions with budgets in the millions and casts and crews that included the entire A-list of Hollywood. He shot black comedies from unusual angles such as Broadcast News by James L. Brooks. He formed romantic dramas as a declaration of love to actors as in The Fabulous Baker Boys. And above all Scorsese relied again and again on Ballhaus’ understanding of the screenplay and subtext, of movement, light and time. Through the years working on set together, Ballhaus passed on his practical knowledge and his experiences to his two sons, Sebastian and Florian. He continues to do so now – not just theoretically – as a teacher at the Academies for Film and Television in Berlin and Munich. And thus, while officially retired, Michael Ballhaus appears, at the age of 73, as busy as ever, dividing his time between a range of projects and places.

Interview by Edda Bauer
Film Stills by Michael Ballhaus
Design by Claudia Schenk

Read the interview in issue #19 of mono.kultur, available from selected shops. You can also order directly from us via our online store mono.konsum.