Custody (2017)
The Distances (2018)
Lemonade (2018)
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Michael Ballhaus • Director of photography

“Working with Fassbinder was a tough school, but a good one”


- BERLIN 2016: DoP Michael Ballhaus, the creator of the 360-degree dolly shot, sat down with Cineuropa at the Berlinale, where he picked up an Honorary Golden Bear

Michael Ballhaus  • Director of photography
(© Jim Rakete/German Film Museum)

At the 66th Berlin International Film Festival, internationally renowned cinematographer Michael Ballhaus was awarded an Honorary Golden Bear. The DoP’s work comprises 130 films, ranging from Martha (1974), through The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) and The Age of Innocence (1993), to 3096 Days [+see also:
film profile

Cineuropa: As the creator of the 360-degree dolly shot, what do you think about virtual-reality projects that offer a panoramic view?
Michael Ballhaus:
Not that much, because first of all, this requires you to invent stories that have to be shot. I don’t believe in that. It is fantastic to sit together with many people in a dark room to share an experience by watching a movie together on screen, which takes us away from reality and lets us feel emotions. This is more important to me than all the technical odds and ends.

Have any aesthetic developments come out of the use of new technologies?
For me, the technical aspect never mattered that much. The idea of the 360-degree dolly shotcame from Fassbinder, but I carried it out the way he wanted it. My suggestion was to do a 180-degree shot, but Fassbinder asked for a panoramic shot, which we did. It wasn’t a technical marvel, because we had a round track on which the camera was spinning around an object.

Which important turning points changed the visual language of film?
The biggest turning point has been that we are shooting digital now. I shot my last film in digital with the Alexa camera, but before that, I always shot on film and liked it very much. Since we shot 3096 Days in a room the size of only seven square meters, it was very helpful to work with a small camera with high luminosity.

How difficult was it to pick your highlights out of your work on 130 films?
Due to the high number of films that I have shot, it was not easy to select the ten most important works. I took an emotional approach and thought about which films have been the most important for me in my own memory. These are the ones that I picked. They are, in a way, my beloved children.

Looking back, are there any movies that you would have made in a different way?
The way you look at a film changes over time. I always trusted my ideas and emotions when I wanted to shoot a certain scene. It was always about my emotions.

How important was the collaboration with the directors?
The collaboration was always very different. At the beginning, I didn’t have a close relationship with Fassbinder. He told me what he was looking for, and he got it; that was all. Later on, he also listened to me when I came up with an idea, but most of the time, we did what he suggested. Since he didn’t like looking at locations, I had to go there together with the production designer. Later on, on set, he asked how I would do the scene. When I explained it to him, he thought about it for five minutes and did it in a different way – but a little bit better, so I also learned from him. In this way, we enhanced our work gradually. In the end, it went fine, but sometimes he had his weak points. 

What was it like working with directors who were not so extreme?
Totally different. I always thought, after having shot 16 films with Fassbinder, that nothing bad could happen to me anymore in the industry, because I could cope with the biggest problems posed by a director. It was a tough school, but a good one.

Which directors would you have liked to work with?
I would have loved to shoot The English Patient with Anthony Minghella, which was offered to me. But my agent rejected it because I already had another project on the go. After that, I fired my agent.

Did you also have ambitions to be a director?
Yes; I wanted to bring a story about Lotte Lenya to the big screen. A producer suggested to me that I should direct it after The Fabulous Baker Boys. There were different versions of the script, but before we got to do it, the producer had a heart attack and died. That was basically the end of the project. Finally, it was killed off when the film department at WDR rejected it because they didn’t like the cast. There were further versions of the script made, but this particular project never made it to the screen.


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