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.

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

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“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.

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

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Whity (1971) – DP: Michael Ballhaus

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

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

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

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

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

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Chinese Roulette (1976) – DP: Michael Ballhaus

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

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

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Lola (1981) – DP: Xaver Schwarzenberger

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Veronika Voss (1982) – DP: Xaver Schwarzenberger

The RWF Quintet: Gottfried John

Gottfried John in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975)

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If there had never been an actor with a face as memorable as Gottfried John’s (1942-2014) before, perhaps only Rainer Werner Fassbinder could have imagined him. Like so many of the men who worked with Fassbinder, John had unusual looks and yet was unmistakably magnetic. Standing at a lanky 6′ 3½” and with a nose, eyebrows and lips that you couldn’t soon forget, John cut a distinctive figure in Fassbinder’s films and TV work between 1972 and 1981. In fact, John was one of the few among Fassbinder’s regular collaborators who had a decent career as a character actor in productions made elsewhere in Europe and across the world, appearing in Billy Wilder’s Fedora (1978), the James Bond film GoldenEye (1995), the Quay Brothers’ animated films Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life (1995) and The PianoTuner of EarthQuakes (2005), the Meg Ryan-Russell Crowe thriller Proof of Life (2000) and the British WWII movie The Gathering Storm (2002, TV).

John’s role as the photojournalist Niemeyer in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven is only partly sympathetic; in many ways he is as bad a seed as Mrs. Küsters’ daughter, Corinna, with whom he becomes romantically involved. Niemeyer takes advantage of the main character’s plight by insinuating himself into her life, using the first opportunity he gets to invite himself into her apartment for her a seemingly endless photo session (chronicling every aspect of her home life) and interviewing her about her husband’s death, which he later spins into negative press that shames the Küsters family and drives Mrs. Küsters away from her daughter, son and daughter-in-law. Niemeyer is ultimately one of the only characters who shows genuine concern for Mrs. Küsters, though, when she becomes embroiled in a perilous situation at the end of the film.

Gottfried John in In a Year with 13 Moons (1978)

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Fassbinder gave John a much more complex role in In a Year with 13 Moons, in which he plays Anton Saitz, a Holocaust survivor and millionaire entrepreneur who is the object of protagonist Elvira (formerly Erwin) Weishaupt’s unrequited love. Years before the start of the film, Anton’s casual comment to lovesick Erwin (played beautifully by Volker Spengler) that it was “too bad you aren’t a girl” was the catalyst for an impulsive, life-altering action: Erwin’s decision to have a sex-change operation, subsequently taking the name Elvira. As the viewer sees in the two days during which the film’s action takes place, Anton was not worth the trouble; he never cared about Erwin/Elvira and does not recognize Elvira when she visits his office building, despite their having once known each other very well. The mood in the scenes with Anton veers between absurdly farcical (the character is obsessed with one of the musical numbers in the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis musical You’re Never Too Young (1955), forcing his chauffeur and other underlings to reenact the performance from the movie) and tragic (Anton agrees to go to Elvira’s apartment, but ends up having sex with her best friend, Zora, thus destroying Elvira’s hopes). Like the Douglas Sirk films that Fassbinder loved so much, In a Year with 13 Moons is heavily melodramatic, but the viewer cares because Fassbinder put so much thought into his work, and even a character as reprehensible as Anton Saitz can be made watchable because of how Gottfried John played him.

The RWF Quintet: Ingrid Caven

Ingrid Caven in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975)

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It is hard to imagine what it was like for Ingrid Caven (b. 1938) to be married to an artist as temperamental as Rainer Werner Fassbinder. (Their union lasted from 1970 to 1972.) Like Irm Hermann, another actress who was Fassbinder’s on-again, off-again girlfriend in the 1960s and 70s, Caven had to deal with the personal and professional troubles of living and working with such a talented but highly unstable (and sometimes vicious) man. I wonder, because I’m not sure: did Fassbinder write characters specifically for Caven, and if so, why were they often – if not always – unlikeable?

In Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, Caven plays Corinna Coren, the cabaret-singing daughter of the main character (Brigitte Mira). When Mr. Küsters kills himself, self-centered Corinna thinks nothing of exploiting her father’s death to promote her own career by returning home to Munich, giving interviews at the cemetery and in her parents’ apartment, and capitalizing on the recent tragedy in order to book concerts in local establishments. Corinna spends most of the film applying makeup and either putting on or taking off clothes, investing far more time and effort in her appearance than in the feelings of her mother and other family members. Every gesture is an act to advertise herself; even when she enters a relationship with a photojournalist, Niemeyer (played by Gottfried John), it is done only to get her name in the paper. Caven’s performance is one of magnificent barbarity, although one must admit that when she sings, she does have a captivating presence. Fassbinder could find external manifestations of poetry even in a character with an ugly personality.

Ingrid Caven in In a Year with 13 Moons (1978)

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Unlike many of her previous characters, Caven’s role as the prostitute “Red Zora” in In a Year with 13 Moons is not glamorous. She is not dolled up with immaculate makeup, although she still has the ultra-thin Marlene Dietrich eyebrows that Fassbinder favored for his actresses. Zora, who is the one close friend of protagonist Elvira/Erwin Weishaupt in the film, spends the entire film wearing blue jeans and a ratty faux-fur jacket, tight and tacky choices that underscore the nature of her profession. Fassbinder, who shot the film himself, photographs the character/actress in unflattering ways, making his forty-year old ex-wife look tired, almost haggard. Because Zora is one of the few people in the world who cares at all about Elvira, the role initially seems like a departure from the usual unpleasant roles that Fassbinder had Caven play. Once more, however, she must eventually do wrong by another character; no “hooker with a heart of gold,” Zora commits an unforgivable act of betrayal by having sex with Elvira’s great love, businessman Anton Saitz (Gottfried John). Zora knows that Elvira experiences terrible psychological crises as a result of her confusion over her sexuality and her inability to sustain certain personal relationships, but like so many Fassbinder characters, Zora only bothers to pay attention when it is convenient for her; by the end, we know that there is only emptiness underneath her weary face.

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)

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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)

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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.