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This distinguished cinematographer reportedly developed an interest in filmmaking after director Max Ophuls allowed him to watch the filming of "Lola Montes" (1955). In 1970, Ballhaus shot "Whity," the first of some 15 films for Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In some ways his work for the enigmatic German director was not a harbinger for Ballhaus' talents. Fassbinder worked at a furious pace, making lighting textures problematic, and his camera was often static, leaving it up to the cinematographer to provide energy in scenes which have been classified as deliberately claustrophobic. While several of these films are known only to cineastes, a few like "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant" (1972) and "The Marriage of Maria Braun" (1978) were art-house successes.
In the early 1980s, Ballhaus emigrated to the USA where he quickly established himself as a highly-regarded cameraman. His first American film was John Sayles' "Baby, It's You" (1982) and he has frequently collaborated with a number of major directors, including Mike Nichols, Martin Scorsese and James L Brooks. Ballhaus' style could be described as eclectic rather than easily recognizable, and he has proven equally comfortable with period dramas and contemporary comedies. His feel for illumination has allowed him facility with features that cover numerous stages in a character's life, whether in flashbacks or prologues. This was particularly true in his first network TV project in the USA, the Dustin Hoffman version of "Death of a Salesman" (CBS, 1985). Directed by Volker Schlondorff, the telefilm allowed Ballhaus to capture the brighter, higher keyed "look" of Willy Loman's recollections of the late 20s, a feat not accomplished on stage that was more true to playwright Arthur Miller's intent. Ballhaus earned an Oscar nomination for Brooks' "Broadcast News" (1987), in which the on-camera TV sections had to "feel" like real TV, while the narrative called for the behind-the-scenes meat of the film to have an urgency, but seem like real life. He earned a second Academy Award nomination in 1989 for "The Fabulous Baker Boys," a masterful piece of cinematography in which the air seemed to stand still in the lives of Beau and Jeff Bridges until Michelle Pfeiffer appears to stir up the atmosphere. Nichols' "Working Girl" (1988), was lit to offer the fantasy appeal Melanie Griffith has for the world in which she aspires to ascend.
Ballhaus' collaboration with Scorsese, who possess a keen instinct for camera placement and movement, began with "After Hours" (1985), which turned downtown Manhattan into an offbeat world. They followed with another urban setting in "The Color of Money" (1986), where Chicago became the unique location and as much a character in the film as its leads. "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988) had a searing, piercing sun which gave not only a sense of the Judean desert but also one of an almost holy spirit glistening the frames. Yet, for many cineastes, Ballhaus is better recognized for his ability in depicting spatial textures. One of his signature moments on film is in Scorsese's "GoodFellas" (1990) when Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is meeting Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) at a diner knowing Conway wants to "whack" him. The camera first is subjective, flowing through the diner from Liotta's point-of-view towards De Niro, the length of movement seeming both perilous and long. The actors sit at a booth in what might have been a dull two-shot, but the scene is given added intensity by its deep focus. Through the window in the background, life outside the diner is ongoing and continuous, in active depth; it is the same kind of shot which distinguished the films of Orson Welles. Even with features that the critics or audiences snubbed, such as "The Mambo Kings" (1992) and "The Age of Innocence" (1993), Ballhaus has been able to win applause for making the look of the film appealing and inviting.
Among Ballhaus' recent credits is Robert Redford's "Quiz Show" (1994), in which the Charles Van Doren character was made to seem angelic, the rosy quality of his cheeks playing to the underlining theme The cinematographer has also worked with director Wolfgang Peterson twice, on "Outbreak" (1995) and "Air Force One" (1997). His lensing of Barry Levinson's "Sleepers" (1996) mixed a period feel in the first act, a colorlessness (to focus on the emotions of the sexual abuse rather than the visual horror of it) for the first part of the second act, then offered a color burdened by shadows for the anguished denouement. Ballhaus reteamed with Mike Nichols for the politically-themed "Primary Colors" (1998).
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