Michael Ballhaus, ‘The Departed’ and ‘Goodfellas’ Cinematographer, Dies at 81

Michael Ballhaus dead Goodfellas cinematographer
Jens Hartmann/REX/Shutterstock

German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who shot Martin Scorsese’s best picture winner “The Departed” and helped numerous Scorsese films achieve their singular visuals, has died at his Berlin apartment after a short illness. He was 81.

Ballhaus was nominated three times for the Academy Award for cinematography — in 1987 for “Broadcast News,” in 1989 for “The Fabulous Baker Boys” and in 2002 for Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.” His publicist and the American Society of Cinematographers confirmed his death.

His other credits included five other films for Scorsese — “After Hours,” “The Color of Money,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “The Age of Innocence,” and “Goodfellas,” — along with Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” ”Working Girl,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “Primary Colors,” “What about Bob?” and “Quiz Show.”

Scorsese released a statement reading, “For over 20 years, Michael Ballhaus and I had a real creative partnership, and a very close and enduring friendship. By the time we met, he had already made film history with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and I revered him. He was a lovely human being, and he always had a warm smile for even the toughest situations—anyone who knew him will remember his smile. We started working together in the 80s, during a low ebb in my career. And it was Michael who really gave me back my sense of excitement in making movies. For him, nothing was impossible. If I asked him for something difficult, he would approach it with enthusiasm: he never told me we couldn’t do something, and he loved to be challenged. If we were running out of time and light, he would figure out a way to work faster. And if we were behind schedule and getting into a situation where we had to eliminate set-ups, he would sit down with me calmly and we would work it out together: instead of getting frustrated about what was being taken away, he would always think in terms of what we had. Really, he gave me an education, and he changed my way of thinking about what  it is to make a film. He was a great artist. He was also a precious and irreplaceable friend, and this is a great loss for me.”

Ballhaus began his career in 1971 with  Rainer Werner Fassbinder with “Whity” and he lensed more than a dozen films for the iconic German director including “The Marriage of Marie Braun” and “Lili Marleen.”

Working with Fassbinder on the film “Martha,” he developed the 360-degree tracking shot that became one of the signature elements of his style. An article on the Goethe Institut website described the distinctive look of a Ballhaus film, “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.”

In 2014, Ballhaus released his autobiography, “Bilder im Kopf,” in which he discusses the gradual loss of his vision due to glaucoma. He also wrote about aspiring to work in the U.S. “At the beginning America was just a beautiful dream. Unreachable. And I thought myself naive to believe that it could ever come true. But it did. I’m still not quite sure how or why, but I consider myself very lucky.”

The Berlin Film Festival honored Ballhaus last year with an honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement.

He told Variety’s Ed Meza that his long collaboration with Fassbinder prepared him for his career in the U.S.

“It helped a lot because he was not an easy director. He was very hard on me and he was very pushy. He always cracked the whip to be fast and not to spend too much time. So I learned to be fast and still tried to be good. That was a big help later when I started shooting in the States. It was also a big help because he was so temperamental that from then on I knew I could handle every director in the world.”

He also said it was difficult working on “Goodfellas” because of his aversion to violence.

“Yes, I have a problem with violence. I must admit that. Marty (Scorsese) was used to violence; he knew it so well. It was very hard sometimes, but when you work with a guy like him, and he’s such a great director, you have to admit that it’s good that way, especially in a movie like “Goodfellas.” There was a lot of violence and that was sometimes hard for me. He always wanted ‘a little more.'”

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  1. T. Duffiel says:

    Worked with him several times… very nice to deal with and a real gentleman

  2. Je Vizzusi says:

    If you break down Coppolas Bram Stoker Dracula cinematographer wise, its one of the hardest most complex DP job ever on film. The Departed was nothing compared to it. He was a take direction Cinematographer that applied his artistic touches very well. He gave each Director his own visions. He deserves a honorary Oscar for his beautiful canvas of artistry on film.
    @JEV1A

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