German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus has had a major impact on German and U.S cinema, working with such acclaimed filmmakers as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Martin Scorsese, Volker Schloendorff, Francis Ford Coppola, Wolfgang Petersen and Robert Redford. After helping to define the look of New German Cinema, Ballhaus moved Stateside, where he began his longtime collaboration with Scorsese, which included such films as “The Color of Money,” “Goodfellas,” “Gangs of New York” and “The Departed.” In 2014, Ballhaus released his autobiography, “Bilder im Kopf,” in which he discusses the gradual loss of his vision due to glaucoma. The 66th Berlinale is honoring Ballhaus with an Honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement, he is the subject of the festival’s Homage.
How did your long collaboration with Rainer Werner Fassbinder prepare you for your 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.
You’ve said that you have an almost physical repulsion to violence. How difficult was it working on a film like “Goodfellas”?
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 blood, a little more blood.” I’d say, “Marty, isn’t that enough?” and he’d say, “No, gimme more blood.”
Your last film was “3096 Days,” about the kidnapping of Natascha Kampusch, who was held captive in a small cellar room in Austria. Your wife, Sherry Hormann, directed the film. What was it like working together?
It was interesting for me to shoot this project with my wife. At first I thought, the poor DP who has to shoot in such a small environment. The room was seven square meters. And I thought, oh, the poor guy. When the producer asked Sherry who her DP was, she said she hadn’t picked one yet. He said, “Why don’t you ask your husband?” She said: “He’s retired.” He said: “Never take no for an answer.” We discussed it for a long time and then we decided we’d do it together and I must say it worked great. All her friends said, “Don’t do it, don’t do it, your marriage will come to an end.” But it was the opposite. It was wonderful. I told her in the beginning, “You are the boss and whatever you want I’ll do.” I treated her the same way I treat other directors. We were a very good team.