The cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who has died aged 81, helped to realise the work of two visionaries: , with whom he made 15 films, and , for whom he shot seven, including the gruesome gangster drama (1990), which tested this exceedingly gentle man’s tolerance of violence. “I wouldn’t have done this movie with another director,” he said in 2010. “These discussions – whether there is enough brain in the blood – are so absurd that you almost want to throw up.” Their other pictures together included the lustrous Edith Wharton adaptation (1993), the grand-and-grubby period piece (2002) and the thriller (2006), which won the best picture Oscar.
Much of the visual dynamism associated with Fassbinder and Scorsese must be credited also to Ballhaus. There are the complicated but elegant compositions in Fassbinder, for example, where closeups, reaction shots and the simultaneous movement of actors are often incorporated into a single frame without recourse to cutting – a style exemplified by one of Ballhaus’s heroes, . There are the accelerated zooms and dolly shots in Scorsese’s films, where the camera rushes toward a face or an object to afford it special emphasis. “It was Michael who really gave me back my sense of excitement in making movies,” Scorsese said. “For him, nothing was impossible.”
Among Ballhaus’s particular innovations was the 360-degree pan in Fassbinder’s made-for-television melodrama Martha (1973), in which Margit Carstensen and as they, too, rotate. The result is a spectacularly disorienting high-speed update of the famous 360-degree kissing shot in Hitchcock’s . It became to some extent his signature shot, and one to which he returned in Hollywood excursions such as (1989), where his on which Michelle Pfeiffer is draped seductively as she performs a sultry rendition of Makin’ Whoopee.
Ballhaus was born in Berlin, to the stage actors Lena Heinz and Oscar Ballhaus, who established a small theatre where their son worked as a photographer. “It was in the theatre that I learned how important the profession of an actor is and how sensitively actors have to be handled,” he said. A defining early encounter with cinema occurred at the age of 20 when he visited the set of Lola Montès, the plush 1955 drama directed by Ophüls, a family friend. This inspired him to study photography, and he later became a television cameraman.
Ballhaus had around 10 years’ experience in German TV under his belt when he was hired by Fassbinder, the prolific and often sadistic enfant terrible of the New German Cinema, to shoot his bizarre western Whity (1971). Even by Fassbinder’s standards this was a chaotic shoot, dramatic enough to inspire a further film, Beware of a Holy Whore (also shot in 1971 by Ballhaus).
“Working with Fassbinder was hard, both mentally and physically,” he said. “He used to emotionally abuse me and also my wife, who was an art director on a few of his movies. I never understood his behaviour but I learned so much from him. He upped my excellence level, my thoughts and way of thinking improved, and, most of all, I learned how to be agile and ready for anything.”
Their greatest work together was The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), a painstaking account of the power games played by four women. Though this claustrophobic, two-hour film was confined to a single apartment, Ballhaus manipulated the available space according to the demands of each scene. The set’s dimensions are magnified and distorted; at one point, the white shag-pile carpet occupies half the screen, with the fashion designer Petra (Carstensen) relegated to the top half of the frame, where she sobs into her gin. Ballhaus worked with Fassbinder through the 1970s, shooting much of the director’s best work, including Fox and His Friends (1975) and his biggest commercial success, (1979).
In 1983 Ballhaus accepted an invitation to make his first US film, John Sayles’s charming period romance Baby It’s You (1983). His partnership with Scorsese began in 1985. Prevented by Hollywood from making his controversial passion project, The Last Temptation of Christ, the director enlisted Ballhaus to shoot quickly a low-budget, independent screwball comedy, After Hours, set over the course of one nightmarish evening in Manhattan. Ballhaus’s experience with Fassbinder, who rarely required more than two takes, stood him in good stead on a breakneck production that also provided ample opportunity for the energetic camera moves that were his stock-in-trade.
He brought visual panache to Volker Schlöndorff’s TV version of Death of a Salesman (1985), starring as Willy Loman, and lent distinction to the singer ’s ill-advised romantic comedy Under the Cherry Moon (1986). He got back together with Scorsese for The Color of Money (also 1986), a belated sequel to the 1961 pool-hall drama The Hustler, with his camera swooping and whooshing memorably across the baize.
He was Oscar-nominated for his sunny work on Broadcast News (1987) and was on hand when Scorsese eventually got the go-ahead to make The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Other films included three for – Working Girl (also 1988), Postcards from the Edge (1990) and Primary Colors (1998) – as well as ’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), impressive in its gothic sweep and its use of effects achieved in-camera rather than in post-production. His Hollywood work was eclectic, taking in the likes of I’ll Do Anything (1994), originally conceived as a musical before having its songs expunged following negative test screenings, and the western flop (1999).
In 2014 he published an autobiography, Pictures in My Head, in which he recounted how glaucoma had eroded his sight.
His first wife, Helga (nee Betten), died in 2006. He is survived by their two children, Florian, a cinematographer, and Jan, an assistant director, both of whom have occasionally worked alongside their father; and by his second wife, the film director Sherry Hormann, whom he married in 2011.
• Michael Ballhaus, cinematographer, born 5 August 1935; died 11 April 2017