The Lens of Fears and Dreams: Michael Ballhaus

German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, most famous for his collaborations with the auteurs Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Martin Scorsese, passed away today at age 81. Here are scenes from eleven films (because ten just aren’t enough!) photographed by Ballhaus, unforgettable moments that are forever imprinted in my mind.

Beware of a Holy Whore (1971, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). An unhappy actress is fired from a film project after making too many demands; we watch her departure in an extended take that Ballhaus shot inside the boat taking her away from the set. I love the blueness of the water and the soft, golden light on Magdalena Montezuma’s face as she drifts further and further away as an aria from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor plays on the soundtrack, before we are abruptly brought back to a scene of the film shoot. Perhaps Fassbinder’s choice of aria, “Il dolce suono,” which depicts the aftermath of Lucia stabbing her husband to death on their wedding night and subsequently fantasizing about marriage to a different man, is applied to Magdalena Montezuma’s farewell scene (trust me, she exhibited tremendous histrionics) by implying that after the bout of madness that destroyed her career opportunity, she can still dream of a brighter future, even if it’s one that probably won’t happen.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). In the first video, Michael Ballhaus discusses his work on Petra von Kant in an interview conducted by the Criterion Collection for a new DVD release of the film in 2015. In the second clip, we see a scene showing the beginning of the first romantic encounter between fashion designer Petra (Margit Carstensen) and a young protégée, Karin (Hanna Schygulla), who is willing and eager to sleep her way to the top of the modeling world. The ornate costumes were designed by Maja Lemcke, her only film credit according to the IMDb.

Martha (1974, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). One of Fassbinder’s greatest films was produced for TV, a melodrama in the style of Douglas Sirk titled Martha. Margit Carstensen plays the main character, a young woman whose father (Adrian Hoven) dies while they are on vacation in Italy; on the same fateful day, she falls in love with an older man (Karlheinz Böhm), whom she soon marries (with disastrous consequences for her). Fassbinder introduces Böhm’s character and shows the instant attraction in the pair’s first meeting thanks to Ballhaus’s cinematography. The camera rotates hypnotically around the man and woman, a dizzying vision of lust. You’ll also note that the scene ends on a shot of a voyeuristic interloper played by El Hedi ben Salem, who played the male lead opposite Brigitte Mira in Fassbinder’s All That Heaven Allows remake, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, that same year. Salem was Fassbinder’s on again, off again boyfriend in the 1970s and he eventually committed suicide in a French jail in 1977, having been arrested and convicted of stabbing three people in a bar fight.

Fox and His Friends (1975, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). Possibly Fassbinder’s greatest masterpiece, Fox and His Friends is the tragic tale of Franz, a working-class man (played by Fassbinder) whose naive, guileless affection for his wealthy boyfriend, Eugen (Peter Chatel), allows Eugen to manipulate and exploit him. In one memorable segment of the film, Eugen convinces Franz to go on a pleasure trip to Morocco, where the couple pick up a local “guide,” Salem (the aforementioned El Hedi ben Salem). The cinematography in the scene in which Franz and Eugen cruise the “Meeting Place of the Dead” is exquisite, decorating the landscape in bars of light from the wooden slats above the market.

Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). Although this clip does not have subtitles, all you need to know is that a cabaret’s emcee (Peter Kern) excitedly introduces a singer’s act (Ingrid Caven), while her new boyfriend (Gottfried John) and her embarrassed mother and brother (Brigitte Mira, Armin Meier) look on. The family considers the performance quite tasteless, given that the family’s patriarch has recently committed suicide; even in the face of personal tragedy, the daughter is too vain and hungry for fame to consider postponing her stage show. Fassbinder loved images of people experiencing shame, frustration and other variations of pain, and this scene is no exception.

Chinese Roulette (1976, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder). Alexander Allerson and Margit Carstensen, playing an estranged husband and wife, embrace in a scene depicted magnificently in one long dolly shot revolving around the two actors. Without dialogue, we get an intense feeling of intimacy from the swirling motions of the camera and the images of the performers’ faces, especially the expressive Margit Carstensen (one of Fassbinder’s favorite leading ladies).

After Hours (1985, dir. Martin Scorsese). Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a word processor who works for a publishing firm in Manhattan, experiences the worst night of his life after he meets an unusual young woman, Marcy Franklin (Rosanna Arquette), in a diner. As the two talk in Marcy’s apartment, Ballhaus keeps the scene minimally lit, but he zooms in on Arquette’s face when she leaves the room, a typically Scorsesean shot which is my favorite in the entire film.

Broadcast News (1987, dir. James L. Brooks). Television producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) leads news anchor Tom Grunick (William Hurt) through his first live show, a relationship that relies on her ability to direct his “performance” – a role-reversal of the Svengali and Trilby archetypes. Michael Ballhaus nicely conveys the depth of the TV studio, showing the distance and shifting perspectives of characters in the control room and down on the set.

Goodfellas (1990, dir. Martin Scorsese). One of the most celebrated scenes in the history of Martin Scorsese’s career is the unedited shot of mobster Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) and soon-to-be wife Karen Friedman (Lorraine Bracco) entering the Copacabana nightclub by way of the kitchen, a handheld shot achieved with the use of a Steadicam. The scene was shot eight times; reportedly, the eighth take is what Scorsese put in the finished film.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, dir. Francis Ford Coppola). Enjoy the lush visual atmosphere of Coppola’s Dracula set: the lighting by Michael Ballhaus, Gary Oldman’s dedicated performance as the title vampire and Winona Ryder’s underrated work as Dracula’s great love, Mina Murray. The beautiful score composed by Wojciech Kilar completes the picture.

Quiz Show (1994, dir. Robert Redford). One of my favorite moments in Quiz Show is the scene in which Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) comes close to revealing to his father, Mark (Paul Scofield), that he has been cheating during his winning streak on the TV quiz show Twenty One. Charles cannot bring himself to admit the sordid truth, though, and the cinematography reflects the metaphorical darkness weighing on Charles’s mind by displaying Mark Van Doren’s private study drenched in shadows. Michael Ballhaus’s use of close-ups, especially as Charles dances on the edge of revealing his secret, draws you in closer to the drama, but I also love the wide shot that the scene ends on, explaining without words that the brief window of opportunity for Charles’s confession has passed.


Painting the Art of Life: 12 Shots from Films by R.W. Fassbinder


“I hope to build a house with my films. Some of them are the cellar, some are the walls, and some are the windows. But I hope in time there will be a house.”

(R.W.F. photographed by Daniel Boudinet, 1978.)

In honor of the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who was born on this day in 1945, here are images from a dozen films of his that I have seen. Each shot, so artistically composed because Fassbinder had a meticulous eye for detail, could stand on its own apart from cinematic context and tell a story as well as any painting or drawing could. Light, shadows, color (or stark black-and-white), set design,  camera angles and the uses of doorways and windows to create multiple frames within the camera frame are all important parts of Fassbinder’s mise-en-scène, as are the costumes and makeup worn by his actors. Whether depicting a waltz in the desert, a melancholy rendezvous in an empty outdoor café, a decadent dinner party or a lively cabaret performance (by a character who is an updated version of Lola Lola from The Blue Angel), Fassbinder’s creativity is always evident. Each entry also lists the director of photography, or DP, for the corresponding film.

Thanks to his distinct and inimitable style, the structure of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “house” is long-lasting.


Love Is Colder Than Death (1969) – DP: Dietrich Lohmann


Whity (1971) – DP: Michael Ballhaus


The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) – DP: Dietrich Lohmann


The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) – DP: Michael Ballhaus


Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) – DP: Jürgen Jürges


Fox and His Friends (1975) – DP: Michael Ballhaus


Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975) – DP: Michael Ballhaus


Chinese Roulette (1976) – DP: Michael Ballhaus


In a Year with 13 Moons (1978) – DP: Rainer Werner Fassbinder


The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) – DP: Michael Ballhaus


Lola (1981) – DP: Xaver Schwarzenberger


Veronika Voss (1982) – DP: Xaver Schwarzenberger

More Diegetic Music: Ten Movies, Ten Scenes

Inspired by my recent post about uses of diegetic music within the worlds of new movies I saw in 2015, I have come up with ten more examples of music performed or listened to by characters in other films I watched last year – except these are all films made before 2014/2015. Enjoy!

You Were Never Lovelier (1942, dir. William A. Seiter) – “The Shorty George” – In this romantic comedy set in Buenos Aires, the second pairing of Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth (the first being You’ll Never Get Rich in 1941), Astaire plays an entertainer wooing Hayworth, who is the daughter of a nightclub owner. Astaire works in the club along with famed bandleader Xavier Cugat and his orchestra, who are seen in the clip and provide the tuneage for this scene. The song itself, composed by Jerome Kern and written by Johnny Mercer, is a paean to jive and swing music popular in America at the time, in particular the “Shorty George” step attributed to African-American dancer George “Shorty” Snowden. Rita Hayworth’s singing was dubbed by Nan Wynn in this and other scenes in You Were Never Lovelier, but clearly Hayworth worked hard at being able to dance at Astaire’s level, making her one of his finest partners in the post-Ginger Rogers years.

Kiss Me Kate (1953, dir. George Sidney) – “Too Darn Hot” – Ann Miller and her backing orchestra perform a number that serves as Miller’s audition for the show-within-the-film, a Broadway musical also titled Kiss Me Kate. The number is one that that we never see performed again in the film, evidently cut from the finished production before opening night. But how could any subsequent staging possibly top this fabulous presentation? Miller is on fire, putting every corner of the cramped apartment space to use, which is even more fun when you see the film in 3D and her accessories fly out of the screen toward the viewer.

Chinese Roulette (1976, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder) – Mahler’s Eighth Symphony – This scene is our introduction to Chinese Roulette; opening credits don’t appear until several minutes later. We don’t know who these characters played by Margit Carstensen (the woman) and Andrea Schober (the girl) are; we don’t learn that they are mother and daughter until later in the scene, after the doorbell rings. As always, Fassbinder composes his shots like paintings, arranging his frames very thoughtfully and considering details like costumes, set design and his actresses’ makeup with great care. The use of Mahler, in conjunction with the neatly constructed design of both the house and the outfit that Carstensen wears, has a lush grandeur that reminds me of Douglas Sirk, whose American films Fassbinder loved so much. (Fassbinder once wrote that “Sirk has made the tenderest films I know, they are the films of someone who loves people and doesn’t despise them as we do.”) I see an additional connection in Fassbinder’s incorporation of windows and mirrors here, elements which Sirk loved to focus on in his films. I don’t know about you, but when I first watched this opening scene from Chinese Roulette, I knew that I wanted to know more about what was going on, which I think is exactly what a film’s introduction should do.

Autumn Sonata (1978, dir. Ingmar Bergman) – Chopin, Prelude No. 2 in A Minor – World-renowned concert pianist Charlotte Andergast (Ingrid Bergman in her final film) visits her daughter Eva (Liv Ullmann) for a few days; they pretend for a while that they can be cordial to one another but we slowly begin to understand how much Eva has suffered, starting with feeling neglected and abandoned as a child when her mother went on her endless series of concert tours. Just prior to this scene, Eva plays the Chopin Prelude No. 2, filled with nervous mistakes. She tries so hard to be good enough at the piano (even in playing it as a hobby rather than as a profession) for her mother, but Charlotte – far from being impressed or even attempting to be motherly and kind – can only point out Eva’s errors, not only from a technical standpoint but in terms of the correct emotional interpretations (at least as far as Charlotte sees things). Charlotte may understand the “right” sentiments to apply to one’s mastery of the Chopin piece, but in this scene, we watch Eva and we know that she has more humanity and compassion inside her than Charlotte ever could contain. As a mother, Charlotte doesn’t know the first thing about how to behave. She has a connection to the music she plays, but she has no real, meaningful relationship with the daughter sitting next to her. We feel the weight of Eva’s silent years of bitter disappointment. She realizes she cannot play the piano like her mother, but more crucially, they cannot communicate. Worse yet, Eva’s loving husband Viktor (Halvar Björk) is there to witness the uncomfortable exchange, incapable of saying anything to ameliorate the situation.

Pretty in Pink (1986, dir. Howard Deutch) – “Try a Little Tenderness” – I always wonder if it was secretly the point of the films that John Hughes wrote (as in this case) and sometimes directed that the characters played by Molly Ringwald should always be so thoroughly unlikeable. This is certainly the case in Pretty in Pink; her character, Andie, is desperately in love with a rich kid and therefore cannot see that her best friend, eccentric Duckie (Jon Cryer) pines for her. Even in this over-the-top scene of lipsyncing to Otis Redding in the record store where Andie works (the boss, Iona, is played by Annie Potts), Andie is totally clueless and thinks Duckie is just an irrepressible goofball with a knack for doing odd stuff without any reason. Poor Duckman!

Before Sunrise (1995, dir. Richard Linklater) – “Come Here” – Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy had no way of knowing that this romantic drama was a seed that would blossom into a trilogy spanning eighteen years of their lives (Before Sunset was released in 2004 and Before Midnight in 2013). This first film has all the sweetness of two complete strangers falling in love in the course of one day. After sharing a brief chat on the train they took to Vienna, Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) make the impulsive decision to continue their conversation by spending the rest of the day together in the city. In this scene, when they visit a record shop, Delpy recognizes the name of an obscure American singer-songwriter, Kath Bloom, whose music she has never heard but which has been recommended to her. Celine and Jesse go into a booth in the store, listen to the LP, and you see all the longing, tension and hope existing between the two people for what their potential future might hold – each wondering when the right moment will be for them to kiss for the first time.

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996, dir. Robert Rodriguez) – “After Dark” – Salma Hayek, playing a mysterious dancer named “Santanico Pandemonium,” makes her dramatic entrance in a film that starts out as a heist/hostage-taking flick but takes a turn for the weird when the main characters, brothers played by George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino (their hostages include Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis), flee to Mexico. Swaying to the beat of the song performed by Tito & Tarantula, the moments when Hayek sticks her foot in Tarantino’s mouth are definite highlights (not a surprise – he did write the screenplay, after all!), but my favorite part is the confused and disgusted look on Juliette Lewis’s face at the end.

Bread and Tulips (2000, dir. Silvio Soldini) – “Tu, solamente tu” (“You, Only You,” recorded by Tiola Silenzi in 1939) and “Franska Valsen” (accordion piece composed by Lars Hollmer) – A romantic comedy about taking chances, Licia Maglietta plays a housewife, Rosalba, who escapes her boring family (including a husband and a son) in the Italian countryside and takes an apartment in Venice, starting a new life for herself. This includes befriending Fernando (Bruno Ganz), a maître d’ who has begun to realize that he is in love with Rosalba as he listens to a Tiola Silenzi song on his hi-fi (hence the beginning and ending parts of the clip above), and also learning to play the accordion, a passion that Rosalba demonstrates for Grazia (Marina Massironi), a friend who lives in her building. Grazia, needless to say, is amazed by her neighbor’s newly discovered reserves of talent.

Hustle & Flow (2005, dir. Craig Brewer) – “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” – The winner of that year’s Academy Award for Best Original Song, this rap/sung collaboration is written by protagonist DJay (Terrence Howard), who is recording demos for what he hopes will be a successful breakthrough in the music world. The story he tells is his own, the grueling tale of a pimp who has to work hard to keep his personal life and his business in order on the streets of Memphis. One of the women who lives with and works for DJay, Shug (Taraji P. Henson), is given the opportunity to sing the chorus of the song, and hearing her voice played back for the first time is a kind of validation that she has never experienced before.

I Love You, Man (2009, dir. John Hamburg) – “Tom Sawyer” – Friendless, uptight Peter (Paul Rudd) meets weird, wild Sydney (Jason Segel), and because opposites can attract, the two end up becoming besties who spend more and more free time together, to the growing annoyance of Peter’s fiancée Zooey (Rashida Jones, who is nothing but supportive in this clip because it’s still early in the film). Their shared love of the rock band Rush, specifically the song “Tom Sawyer,” leads to them playing it in Sydney’s garage, which allows for director John Hamburg to include a montage of other shining moments from the newfound bromance.

The RWF Quintet: Volker Spengler

Volker Spengler in Chinese Roulette (1976)







If one had never seen a film directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Chinese Roulette would not be the place the start. It is the kind of deadly-dark comedy that not every viewer can tolerate, except those who appreciate Fassbinder’s cynical brand of humor and his interest in the lives of socially/sexually exploited characters. In Chinese Roulette, the two halves of an unhappily married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Christ (Alexander Allerson and Margit Carstensen), meet by accident at one of their sumptuous vacation homes in the German countryside, each spouse having gone there with his/her lover (Anna Karina and Ulli Lommel, respectively). This get-together was orchestrated by the couple’s disabled daughter Angela (Andrea Schober), who sees through each parent’s façade of fidelity and resents them for well-masked hatred of her and her permanently crippled legs.

This is where the Kast family enters the scene. Mrs. Kast (Brigitte Mira) is the haughty housekeeper at the country estate, and one of the malevolent pleasures she gets out of life is bossing her grown-up son Gabriel (Volker Spengler) around. A “tall and typically lumpy man with small, beady eyes and perennially tousled hair,” as the TCM database’s mini-biography describes him, Spengler (b. 1939) has a striking appearance in Chinese Roulette: doughy skin, very pink lips, shaggy hair bleached blonde, an army-green uniform, black boots. He wanders through the mansion, taking orders from others (usually his mother), sometimes a silent witness to the strange goings-on in the house. Reviewers have occasionally described Spengler’s character as androgynous and asexual, but he does have a fixation on young Angela’s governess, a mute woman named Traunitz (Macha Méril), although the revelation of Gabriel’s love/lust for her feels random and is never mentioned again after the one scene in which he visits her room and kisses her (seen in the sixth image above). Perhaps whether the relationships in this film make sense is a moot point, though; as a storyteller, Fassbinder was interested in actions but not necessarily in logic.

Volker Spengler in In a Year with 13 Moons (1978)







The film guide The A to Z of German Cinema (2010) describes Volker Spengler as an actor who “specialized in introverted, damaged, and decidedly odd characters.” While that may sound like a bit of a put-down, the book also notes that his lead performance in Fassbinder’s In a Year with 13 Moons “reveals the breadth of Spengler’s emotional range.” Moons is another film that you wouldn’t want to be your first-ever Fassbinder experience, but if and when you are ready for it, the impact will be devastating. Spengler plays a a transsexual woman, Elvira (formerly Erwin) Weishaupt, who underwent a sex-change operation when the love of her life, Anton Saitz (played by Gottfried John), rejected her for then having a man’s body. The film chronicles the last few days in Elvira’s life as she searches for answers: why her lover, Christoph (Karl Scheydt) has been so abusive, beating and belittling her; how her upbringing in an orphanage affected her; what her sex-change has meant to her ex-wife Irene (Elisabeth Trissenaar), who still calls Elvira “Erwin,” and her grown-up daughter Marie-Ann (Eva Mattes), who thinks of Elvira as “Papa”; and why, despite all her efforts, she cannot find the companionship she craves. Sexual identity is a key part of the story being told, but Elvira’s tale is one of basic human longing for compassion and reciprocated love. They are needs which transcend the definitions or limitations of a person’s physical form.

Film reviewer Jim Clark wrote about Fassbinder, Spengler and In a Year with 13 Moons in 2004 and had this to say:

“A grieving Fassbinder began this picture soon after the suicide of his lover, Armin Meier (who appeared in eight of his pictures), and it is arguably his most powerful work. It is also his most personal, not only because he wrote, directed, designed, photographed and edited it himself, but because he laid bare his most profound feelings and ideas. With Volker Spengler in the lead, it also features one of the most breathtaking performances in any Fassbinder film. This riveting character study of a transgendered woman defies categorization, as it joins together – on some primal, intuitive level – melodrama, tragedy, and a unique strain of comedy which is both merciless and tender.

… Erwin/Elvira was brought fully to life by the astonishing performance of Volker Spengler, in his first starring role. He had played some intriguing, and bizarre, earlier characters for Fassbinder – including the tormented wannabe philosopher Gabriel in Chinese Roulette and the deranged Ernst who tries to copulate with houseflies (!) in the farcical Satan’s Brew – but nothing prepares us for his breathtaking work here. Spengler reportedly lived this role fully, although not surgically, and even spent most of his offscreen time with Fassbinder. The director’s typical hands-off approach, allowing actors maximum freedom (so long as they remained true to his vision), clearly brought out the best in Spengler. The actor also relished the spontaneity which came with getting final script pages hours, or minutes, before filming. Incredibly, most of the shots were done in just one take.

Although most of Fassbinder’s films focus on one central character, perhaps no other creates such a tight, and multi-layered, bond between protagonist, story and form.”

Volker Spengler continues to act in theater productions in Berlin – in October he was in the two-person play 4.48 Psychosis, put on by the troupe LAWBF (Like a Wild Beast’s Fur) – but there is no doubt that his greatest claim to fame in terms of international recognition rests on his outstanding achievements when working with Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

The RWF Quintet: Brigitte Mira

As a kind of counterbalance to the number of sparely designed, quickly shot Doris Wishman films I have been watching in recent months, I have also been watching films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the West German director whose sense of color and style and his love of Douglas Sirk meant that no frame in a Fassbinder picture ever existed without a great deal of thought and care having gone into it. In five particular Fassbinder films – Love Is Colder Than Death (1969), Fox and His Friends (1975), Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975), Chinese Roulette (1976) and In a Year with 13 Moons (1978) – my appreciation for some of Fassbinder’s actors has grown and blossomed. I would like, therefore, to focus on five performers in the following series of posts, looking at two roles for each actor and how he or she made such an impression on me.

Brigitte Mira in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975)







Brigitte Mira (1910-2005) had her first starring role for Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), a remake/update of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) in which she plays a middle-aged widow who falls in love with and marries a much younger Moroccan immigrant. Again, in Mother, Mira portrays an older woman who must deal with the death of her husband and how she can go on with her life, although in this case the plot is even more political since her husband has recently died by suicide after murdering his boss at their factory in a fit of extreme rage (Mr. Küsters had just been fired), leading some characters to insert themselves into Mira’s world by insisting that her late husband was a martyr who died for the cause of Communism. You want so much to give Mira’s character a hug, for all the heartache she endures and the ways she must bravely face the pain, particularly from unsympathetic family members.

Brigitte Mira in Chinese Roulette (1976)







Chinese Roulette, however, is a totally different story. Fassbinder cast Mira against the type that he had created for her; rather than play another sweet, well-meaning, plain-faced woman, Mira is glamorous, vain and mean-spirited as a housekeeper at a rich couple’s country estate. As Vincent Canby noted in his New York Times review, Mira plays the part “at a far remove from her title role in Mrs. Küsters Goes to Heaven. [Mira] wears brilliant red lipstick, bouffant hair and eyelashes so long and sharp they look as if they could scratch the finish of a Mercedes-Benz. Instead, she simply bosses around her androgynous son (Volker Spengler) and laughs with delight when [the couple’s] crippled child falls off her crutches.” (Canby forgot to mention the short dresses and high boots, which add to the look.) Brigitte Mira does not have the lead in Chinese Roulette, but her note-perfect portrayal of a cruel and gossipy matron is a triumph.