It may have been preordained that Michael Ballhaus would make his livelihood in the film business; both of his parents were actors, and director Max Ophüls was a family friend (who cast the young man as an extra in his final film).
But Ballhaus’ future lay behind the camera rather than in front of it, and his nearly 50-year career as a cinematographer earned three Oscar nominations and teamed him with some of the greatest filmmakers in recent history.
That career began in 1971 in Ballhaus’ native Germany, where he became one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s most trusted collaborators.
The two teamed more than a dozen times, including television work (the epic miniseries WORLD ON A WIRE) and some of Fassbinder’s most acclaimed features (THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN).
As the cinematographer shifted his focus to Hollywood films in the early 1980s, respect for his skills and calm under fire grew quickly, as did demand for his services. James L. Brooks, Frank Oz, Mike Nichols, Robert Redford and Wolfgang Petersen were all repeat customers.
But after Fassbinder, the director most closely associated with Ballhaus was Martin Scorsese. “It was Michael who really gave me back my sense of excitement in making movies,” the director said of his old friend.
Michael Ballhaus passed away in April 2017. The American Cinematèque honored the master behind the camera with a film series in May as a heartfelt farewell.