A lonely canoe drifts and slowly disappears into the limitless ocean under a foreboding sky. Musicians sweat and smile joyfully as they perform in a crowded Havana nightclub. Two alcoholics share drinks and a bed in a seedy L.A. apartment. These varied images from, respectively, Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man,” Wim Wenders’ “Buena Vista Social Club” and Barbet Schroeder’s “Barfly” capture the human condition — both the transcendence and existential angst — in all its messiness and mystery, courtesy of cinematographer Robby Muller, who is receiving the ASC’s Intl. Achievement Award.
Despite his Dutch roots, Muller is as important to the New German Cinema movement of the ’70s and ’80s as the filmmakers Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlondorff and the director with whom he’s most associated, Wenders. The d.p.’s long and fruitful collaboration with Wenders began with the 1969 short “Alabama: 2000 Light Years From Home,” Wenders’ 1970 feature debut “Summer in the City” and continued through such films as “The Scarlet Letter” (1973), “Kings of the Road” (1976), “The American Friend” (1977), “Paris, Texas” (1984) and “Until the End of the World” (1991).
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Born in Curacao, Dutch Antilles, Muller studied at the Netherlands Film Academy in the early ’60s before apprenticing as assistant to prolific Dutch cinematographer Gerard Vandenberg for five years. “He took me … to Germany where he was quite famous,” recalled the d.p .in a 1993 Australian interview (Muller, who turns 73 in April, has been in deteriorating health and, according to his wife, not able to speak to Variety). There, Muller met director Hans Giessendorfer and Wenders, developing his flair for indie-style shooting and arresting visuals, as evidenced by Giessendorfer’s 1970 German horror film “Jonathan.”
“Wim and I became well known after ‘The American Friend’ and I made features in Holland, Germany, France and a few — not many — in America,” he added.
One of the latter was 1980’s “Honeysuckle Rose” starring Willie Nelson, and Muller’s comments about working on a Hollywood production are quite revealing. “When you’re working there, there’s not much room for improvisation and low-budget shooting. It’s all well-planned in advance. It’s all machinery … so at first you are overwhelmed by it and your work starts looking maybe ‘American.’ After my first film in Hollywood, I could have been booked out for a year, maintained myself there, got a Green Card, joined the union. But it’s not really my world.”
Instead, Muller pursued his own muse, racking up such eclectic credits as “Repo Man” for Alex Cox, “Mystery Train” for Jarmusch, “Breaking the Waves” for Lars von Trier and “To Live and Die in L.A.” for William Friedkin.
“I’d seen and admired his work, especially in ‘Paris, Texas,’ and that was the look I wanted,” Friedkin says. “He had this great foreigner’s eye for the States, particularly the West Coast, and it was so fresh. He wasn’t shooting cliches. He captured all those details usually overlooked in American films, and I wanted to do something that was very different from ‘The French Connection,’ which was mainly shot on gray days and with a hand-held look.”
Together, the director and d.p. devised a look and style for the film that was based on Muller’s love of natural light, “which is constantly changing,” Friedkin says. “He loved backlighting with the sun, and using very little coverage, and it suited the film perfectly.”
Muller’s low-tech, naturalistic approach to cinema seemed perfectly suited to von Trier’s neo-musical “Dancer in the Dark,” given the filmmaker’s stated allegiance to the Dogma 95 aesthetic of using handheld cameras and available light. But von Trier and Muller flouted Dogma convention by using 100 stationary digital cameras for the film’s musical numbers. “Their coming is signaled by a subtle shift in the film’s palette, as the washed-out, beige hues of everyday life suddenly glow like an old revival-house print of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’,” wrote A.O. Scott in his New York Times review.
Muller’s most recent feature work — “24 Hour Party People” for Michael Winterbottom, and the Jarmusch short “Coffee and Cigarettes” — is a decade old now, but even the period club piece “24,” about the Manchester music scene in the ’70s, looks anything but dated, in large part thanks to his vibrant, expressive camerawork.
“His work’s timeless,” says Friedkin. “He taught me all about composition, and in the end I adopted his style — that’s how big an influence he was.”
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