LONDON — The 66th Berlin Intl. Film Festival will award its Honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement to German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, to whom the festival is also dedicating its Homage.
Ballhaus is one of the world’s leading cinematographers. He established his reputation in Germany where he worked with, among others, auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, helping the “Young German Cinema” gain new artistic freedom. He later worked with American directors such as Martin Scorsese, and affected the lighting and look of U.S. moviemaking.
His body of work comprises some 130 films for movie theaters and television, including 15 films with Fassbinder and seven with Scorsese, alongside many other top directors, including Wolfgang Petersen, Volker Schloendorff, John Sayles, Robert Redford, Mike Nichols and Francis Ford Coppola.
Ballhaus began as a still photographer and cameraman in television. He had already been Fassbinder’s director of photography three times before taking his place at the eyepiece on “Martha” (West Germany, 1974), a psycho-drama about a sado-masochistic marriage. During the shoot, Fassbinder and Ballhaus discussed how to film the first meeting of the future couple as a magical moment. Ballhaus suggested a semi-circular travelling shot due to the uneven ground at the location.
Fassbinder countered with a challenge to have the camera make a full circuit of the pair. The resulting 360-degree dolly shot drew audiences into the scene’s emotional intensity and was to become a Ballhaus trademark. “The cinematographer’s intent and his genius is the way he comes up with visual language to suit each individual director and film,” the festival said.
Following their collaboration on “After Hours,” Ballhaus’ second outing with Scorsese was “The Color of Money” (U.S., 1986), which was shown out of competition at the 1987 Berlinale. For the film about pool hustlers, Ballhaus unleashed the camera to glide, in a movement echoing that of the pool balls, around the room.
For Nichols’ romantic comedy “Working Girl” (U.S., 1988), about a secretary who cleverly grabs the chance to transform herself into a powerhouse businesswoman, Ballhaus put a spectacular aerial shot behind the opening credits. The camera slowly circles the Statue of Liberty before pushing in to land on the Staten Island ferry.
In the key piano scene in Steve Kloves’ “The Fabulous Baker Boys” (U.S., 1989), the camera dollies slowly around singer Susie Diamond (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) and pianist Jack Baker (played by Jeff Bridges). “The long, sensual travelling shot is a flirtation just as intense as the interaction between Michelle Pfeiffer in her red dress and Jeff Bridges at the ivories,” the festival said. The cinematography garnered Ballhaus one of his three Academy Award nominations.
His fame grew in the 1990s with work on films such as Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (U.S., 1990), Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (U.S., 1992) and Redford’s “Quiz Show” (U.S., 1994, shown out of competition at the 1995 Berlinale).
In Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” (U.S., 1993), the subtle use of camera angles and gentle dolly shots brought the drama of a love triangle in 19th-century New York to life. After returning to Germany in 2007, he lensed “3096 Tage” (3096 Days, Germany, 2013) directed by Sherry Hormann, his final outing as a director of photography.
The Berlinale will bestow its Honorary Golden Bear on Ballhaus at an award ceremony on Feb. 18 at 10 p.m. in the Berlinale Palast, which will be accompanied by a screening of “Gangs of New York.”
The preceding evening, there will be a discussion in English with Ballhaus and Jim Rakete titled “Michael Ballhaus meets Jim Rakete” at the HAU Hebbel am Ufer (HAU1) theater.
THE TEN FILMS SCREENING IN THE BERLINALE HOMAGE
“Martha” (West Germany, 1974, director: R. W. Fassbinder), TV film
“The Color of Money” (U.S., 1986, director: Martin Scorsese)
“Working Girl” (U.S., 1988, director: Mike Nichols)
“The Fabulous Baker Boys” (U.S., 1989, director: Steve Kloves)
“Goodfellas” (U.S., 1990, director: Martin Scorsese)
“Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (U.S., 1992, director: Francis Ford Coppola)
“The Age of Innocence” (U.S., 1993, director: Martin Scorsese)
“Quiz Show,” (U.S., 1994, director: Robert Redford)
“Gangs of New York” (U.S./Italy, 2002, director: Martin Scorsese)
“3096 Tage” (3096 Days, Germany, 2013, director: Sherry Hormann)