Michael Ballhaus

Michael Ballhaus: “Nobody can hurt me”

 Listen to Audio Excerpt Listen to Audio Excerpt
Short Profile

Name: Michael Ballhaus
DOB: 5 August 1935 (d. 12 April 2017)
Place of birth: Berlin, Germany
Occupation: Cinematographer

Mr. Ballhaus, the great director Rainer Werner Fassbinder once said, “It isn’t easy to accept that suffering can also be beautiful.” Do you believe that?

I worked as Fassbinder’s cinematographer for a long time. I did 16 movies with him in Germany and of course I suffered, but I didn’t feel it that it was beautiful to suffer! Sometimes I know it’s necessary in life, sure… But I think it’s more important to think instead about why do you suffer? What could you do not to suffer anymore? In the case with Mr. Fassbinder, however, it was definitely not necessary.

Do you feel like you got a thicker skin working with him?

Yes. I knew that after that I could work with any and every director — he could be as complicated as he wanted because Fassbinder topped them all! There are directors who are temperamental, there are guys who are very friendly, and then others who turn around and are not friendly anymore, so as a cinematographer, you have to accept that the director has his own ideas. You have to be open. You have to be very tolerant. In the end after working with someone like Fassbinder, nobody could hurt me. I worked with other directors and I did not suffer at all.

“Execution is easier. Having the idea is the hard part.”

What do you think sets directors like Fassbinder or Martin Scorsese, with whom you worked later in your career, apart from other filmmakers?

Fassbinder and Scorsese both had images in their head. They had an imagination of how their movie should look. It was good — I think the idea is the most important thing. Execution is easier! (Laughs) You can always find a way to overcome technical problems, you can execute almost any idea as long as it’s not totally crazy. But having that idea is the hard part. Luckily, I’m also the kind of DP who, most of the time, also has an idea.

You and Fassbinder famously pioneered the 360 degree tracking shot in film. What was it like bringing that particular idea to fruition?

It’s not an easy move! At the time, you couldn’t put any lights in the shot or have any crew standing around because, you know, you move around the shot in a circle. That’s why very few people tried replicating that shot in the beginning.

Did you know at the time that you were doing something that would change the film industry?

I saw when I did it that it was something very impressive. Inventing something like that, it always changes something. If you see a shot in a movie that’s interesting or unique, you think, “Oh, that was great, I could try that myself.” In that way, you’re always learning. I learned a lot from DPs, just as other DPs learned from me. Later they came up with ways of hanging lights and stuff to make this kind of shot easier, so it became pretty popular to do a 360. And then I started not doing it anymore! (Laughs) There are not too many new ideas that you can have anymore!

Ballhaus and Fassbinder's iconic 360 degree tracking shot premieres in the 1974 film, Martha.

But I guess the film’s story also influences those ideas. The imagery has to tell the right story.

It has to come together! You have to understand what the story is about and then find out how to make images that work for the story. You have to know which shots will work for the type of screen — film or television. You can have different ideas of using the Steadicam, you can have different types of cameras, you can move cameras on the floor… It’s hard if the people are very static and you cannot move the camera a lot, for example. I did one film recently about the kidnap victim Natascha Kampusch. The room was only seven square meters… There was only one bulb hanging from the ceiling, so it affected how we shot, but it was also necessary for the story.

What inspires your cinematography? I read that you believe that watching films is the best way to prepare for making a movie.

That’s still true. And I think you should watch those movies in a dark room with other people; that’s the best way to really anticipate the story. I’ve always liked the Nouvelle Vague. We watched all the movies that started from these directors… They were inspiring because they broke the rules! They did something different. The camera was, at that time, not very flexible, but the DP who shot most of these movies, he just took his camera on his shoulder and sat down on a wheelchair and drove down the road in Paris, just in front of his actors! And it was wonderful! It was free all of a sudden.

When you moved from Germany to America, did you find that the way of telling a story through film was different?

I was afraid that it would be. I was afraid of the American film industry at first because I didn’t know how it worked. When I started working with Scorsese and other American directors, I just continued working but in a different language. (Laughs) I learned pretty fast when I started working with the first American directors, they look at film and they have the same approach to things. So creating those emotional moments in film… They feel the same, whatever you do.

“That was amazing for me: the director had a great idea and then the cinematographer would fulfill it.”

Do you remember the first time you were emotionally affected by a film?

My first encounter like that was when Max Ophüls made the film Lola Montès… My parents were both actors and I saw them on stage very often and when I was a kid, I wanted to be an actor. But then I learned that I probably have no talent for that. (Laughs) So finally, when I was 18 when Max brought me onto the set of his film Lola Montès and that fascinated me. Christian Matras as the DP on that one, and to see how he worked with Max… It was fascinating!

Was that the moment that sparked your career?

To see how this collaboration works, to see the combination of what they invented together and how they connected, the ideas they came up with together… That was amazing for me. The director had a great idea and then the cinematographer would fulfill it. Watching them work, that is when I first thought filmmaking would be something wonderful that I would love to do. That did it to me.