Michael Ballhaus

A German Cinematographer in Hollywood

You’ve seen his work many times, but probably didn’t know it. Michael Ballhaus was the director of photography for many Hollywood films, including Working Girl (1988), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Air Force One (1997), The Color of Money (1986), and The Departed (2006, his last Hollywood film).

Michael Ballhaus

Michael Ballhaus during a Berlinale presentation in February 2016. The former Hollywood cameraman was honored for his cinematic innovations, including his iconic 360-degree pan. PHOTO: rbb TV

Born in Berlin on August 5, 1935, Michael Ballhaus was seven when his family moved to Bavaria during World War II. He grew up in the northern Bavarian towns of Coburg and Wetzhausen. His parents were both stage actors, and it was through theater that Ballhaus came to cinema. The film director Max Ophüls was a friend of the family. In 1955 he let Ballhaus observe the filming of Lola Montez and the work of French cameraman Christian Matras. The experience inspired him to also become a cameraman.

Trademark 360-degree pan
In 1973 Michael Ballhaus was working behind the camera for his sixth film with the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. – MARTHA is a “psycho-drama” starring Karlheinz Böhm and Margit Carstensen. While shooting MARTHA in Italy, Ballhaus and Fassbinder together invented the 360-degree pan, in which the camera moves in a complete circle around the subject while constantly aimed at the subject. Ballhaus would later use this technique often in his Hollywood films. It became his trademark. – The Scene: Martha (Carstensen) has just seen her father die while they were climbing Rome’s famous Spanish Steps. In the ensuing confusion, her purse is stolen. She goes to the German Embassy to replace her passport. After she steps out of her taxi in front of the embassy, she encounters the elegant Helmut Salomon (Böhm). To visually express this enchanting moment, the camera spins about the two people – who then go their separate ways.
WEB: Interview with Ballhaus + video of the 360-degree pan

Although he never had a formal course in cinematography, Ballhaus did study photography. His first camera work was for television in Baden-Baden for the German TV channel Südwestfunk (SWF), where he began as an assistant cameraman. He later worked his way up to head cameraman at SWF, and in 1968 he filmed his first feature film. After that he began working with director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, with whom he shot 17 movies. (Two of the best-known: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and The Marriage of Maria Braun.) Fassbinder’s international reputation helped bring Ballhaus to the attention of Hollywood.

In 1982 Ballhaus went to Hollywood to work on a German production. As chance would have it, John Sayles happened to see the footage he shot, and asked him to film Baby It’s You. In the US he eventually collaborated with many respected film directors, including Mike Nichols, James L. Brooks, Robert Redford, fellow German Wolfgang Petersen, and Martin Scorsese. The last Hollywood picture he filmed was The Departed (2006) for Scorsese (whom Ballhaus considers a genius).

Ballhaus Berlin documentary

Michael Ballhaus co-directed this documentary film about his hometown of Berlin.
PHOTO: Farbfilm-Verleih

In 1960 Ballhaus married the actress and set designer Helga Maria Betten, whom he had met during the Fassbinder years. She also became his close professional advisor and partner. They had two sons, Jan Sebastian and Florian Marc (both now also in the film business). Helga’s death in September 2006 was a life-shattering event that led to the filmmaker’s decision to return to Germany, after 24 years of living in southern California. His wife was laid to rest in a Berlin cemetery.

In Germany, Michael Ballhaus has embarked on a second career as a producer/director and teacher. His documentary film about his hometown of Berlin was released in May 2009. Co-directed with the Argentinian-German Ciro Cappellari, In Berlin is a tribute to the city in which he was was born (at Charité Hospital). In 2007, he announced the Ballhaus Project, an initiative for energy conservation and climate protection. In 2010 Ballhaus was honored with a star on the “Boulevard der Stars” in Berlin. He now divides his time between living in Berlin, New York, and Franconia (Bavaria). In October 2011, he married the German-American film and TV director, and screenwriter Sherry Hormann (1960- ). She was born in Kingston, New York, but has lived in Bavaria since she was six. The two worked together recently (at the Bavaria Filmstudios in Munich and in Vienna) on the 2013 German film (3096 Tage, “3,096 Days”) about the infamous kidnapping of Natascha Kampusch in Austria. For marketing reasons, the film was shot in English, with Irish actress Antonia Campbell-Hughes playing Kampusch.

Florian Marc Ballhaus
Michael’s son, Florian Ballhaus (born in Baden-Baden, Germany in 1965), has also become a successful cinematographer in Hollywood and in Europe. His TV work includes Sex and the City (10 episodes, 2003-2004) and the pilot for Lie to Me (2009). He was in charge of the camerawork for Flightplan (2005), The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009), The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009) and RED – Retired, Extremely Dangerous (2010), the latter two films being directed by fellow German Robert Schwentke. His most recent films are Mr. Popper’s Penguins (2011) and Hope Springs (2012). Florian Ballhaus now lives in Los Angeles. His brother, Jan Sebastian, has worked as an assistant director on many Hollywood and German productions (as Sebastian Ballhaus).

Michael Ballhaus worked in German TV and lensed 17 films for director Rainer Werner Fassbinder alone, before going to Hollywood in 1982. After 24 years in California, he returned to Germany in 2006, following the death of his wife Helga. He is now teaching, directing, and producing. His first film project as director since leaving Hollywood was In Berlin (2009).

Below is a filmography of notable Hollywood pictures filmed by Michael Ballhaus. In 2007 he became the first German cinematographer to be honored by the American Society of Cinematographers.

Next | Germans (and Others) in Hollywood

Hollywood Films
As Cinematographer or Director of Photography

Baby It’s You (1983)
Director: John Sayles. Ballhaus’ first American film was shot in New Jersey.

Heartbreakers (1984)
Director: Bobby Roth. With Peter Coyote and Nick Mancuso.

After Hours (1985)
Director: Martin Scorsese. Ballhaus’ first film for Scorsese. With Cheech and Chong, John Heard, Rosanna Arquette, and Teri Garr, many think this is an underated classic comedy.
DVD: After Hours

Death of a Salesman (1985, TV)
Director: Völker Schlöndorff. This TV movie stars Dustin Hoffmann as Arthur Miller’s salesman Willy Loman.
DVD: Death of a Salesman from Amazon.com

The Color of Money (1986)
Director: Martin Scorsese. Paul Newman (The Hustler) teaches a cocky pool shark (Tom Cruise) some lessons.
DVD: The Color of Money from Amazon.com

The Glass Menagerie (1987)
Director: Paul Newman. Tennessee William’s play with Joanne Woodward, John Malkovich, and Karen Allen.

Broadcast News (1987) Director: James L. Brooks. The TV news jungle, starring William Hurt, Albert Brooks, and Holly Hunter.
DVD: Broadcast News from Amazon.com

The House on Carroll Street (1988)
Director: Peter Yates. Emily Crane (Kelly McGillis) is fired by Life Magazine after refusing to give names to a 1951 House Un-American Activities Committee.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Director: Martin Scorsese. This controversial, Oscar-nominated look at Jesus as a human being was banned in several countries. William Dafoe is Jesus; Harvey Keitel is Judas.
DVD: The Last Temptation of Christ from Amazon.com

Goodfellas (1990)
Director: Martin Scorsese. With Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci.

Dracula (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola. With Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins and Keanu Reeves.

Outbreak (1995)
Director: Wolfgang Petersen. Stars Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and Morgan Freeman.

Air Force One (1997)
Director: Wolfgang Petersen. Stars Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Glenn Close and Jürgen Prochnow.

Primary Color (1997)
Director: Mike Nichols. With John Travolta, Emma Thompson and Kathy Bates.

Wild Wild West (1999)
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld. Stars Will Smith, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh and Salma Hayek.

Gangs of New York (2002)
Director: Martin Scorsese. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz.

The Departed (2006)
Director: Martin Scorsese. Ballhaus’ last Hollywood film starred Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg.

Next | Germans (and Others) in Hollywood

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