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The Berlinale Film Festival opened two days ago, which is always an exciting time for the city – somehow the mood changes for a few days. Legendary cinematographer Michael Ballhaus – longtime collaborator for Martin Scorsese – was one of the few German ‘exports’ to succeed in Hollywood and an important father figure for the Berlin film scene, which is why we post today a brief excerpt from mono.kultur #19, where Ballhaus talks about his formative experience with another legend of German film, Rainer Fassbinder.


You earned your reputation through your long collaboration with one of the most important, but also the most difficult directors of the German post-war period, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Fassbinder, like Scorsese, is known as being a complicated character, each in his own way. How did you get along with these personalities?

With Fassbinder it wasn’t good behind the scenes – that’s why I only made 16 films with him. All the same, in his time he was – and I still believe this to be true – the best and most important director in Germany. Working with him was extremely important for me – I learnt an awful lot from him. However, I never imagined that the job of a cameraman was easy. To be honest, I preferred working with the complicated directors to the easy-going ones, simply because they were better. If someone has very high demands and visions that other people don’t have, then it’s naturally a bit complicated. But of course the results are better in the end. In this respect, working with Fassbinder was always interesting, always. Provided you overlooked the fact that he wasn’t very nice sometimes.

What made the work interesting?

On the one hand, it was the stories he wanted to tell. On the other hand, it was how he dealt with the actors, how he led them and what he got out of them. And also the ideas he had for pictures and the rhythm that he created in his films. The way he arranged a scene – that was all unusual, that was new and it was simply extremely exciting. Fassbinder fundamentally thought things through; for example, violence and the depiction of violence. For me, this was entirely decisive information and gave me new perspectives from which I learnt a great deal personally… Moreover, when he was nice – and he was nice sometimes – you could have really great conversations with him; he always talked about something – it was never blah-blah, we never talked about the weather. He talked about real-life topics: about love, about death, about relationships… It was always about something. That made it very exciting, of course.

He had ideas that you then had to turn into images and visions?

He had the vision in his head himself, exactly as Scorsese had and still has the vision. He could also describe these visions very precisely and at the start he demanded that his ideas be implemented exactly as he wanted – until we had a quarrel during our second collaboration, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, because I hadn’t filmed the sequence quite in the rhythm he wanted. Then I told him that if he wanted me to just be his assistant, he’d have to find someone else. And I left.

There can’t be many people who have walked out on Fassbinder?

No, that didn’t happen to him very often – because the others were dependent on him and were part of his clan. This quarrel changed our relationship, at any rate.

For example, he never wanted to go and look at film locations. He thought it was boring. So when he arrived at a film location that he didn’t know, after our quarrel he’d say, ‘You’ve probably given this place some thought.’ I’d say, ‘Yes, of course’ – I’ve always given film locations thought. So I told him and he listened and at the same time he walked around and after ten minutes, he’d say, ‘Well, let’s do it differently.’ Then it was his idea, which most of the time was better! I was really pleased about that, of course, when someone has different ideas, new ideas, and wants to turn something on its head sometimes, do something different. That was always very inspiring.

Would you sum up by saying that you went through a tough school with him, but one in which you learnt a great deal?

Absolutely; that’s exactly the point. I really learnt a great deal from Fassbinder: I learnt to be quick, I learnt to think about the action in the scenes, that is to say the way in which the pictures fit together… That was a very important learning experience for me, probably the most important learning experience of my whole career.

Because I imagine it was unbelievably difficult just to concentrate on the work in those surroundings; also the Fassbinder clan, which you just mentioned – numerous accounts from this time talk about the totally chaotic work environment; they talk about a madhouse. How did you keep yourself out of that?

Well, I had my family; I had my wife and children. I always stayed out of that. That was very important to me. I never wanted to be dependent on Fassbinder, not financially either. That’s why I always worked with other directors in between, which he never liked – he was always angry and jealous about that. Nonetheless, we kept working together. It wasn’t awful all the time – that’s not true either. There were times when he was peaceful. For example, when we shot the film Chinese Roulette in our house in Franconia…

That was in your house?

Yes – we don’t own it anymore, but my siblings and I bought the house together with my father’s inheritance. At any rate, we shot the film there and I thought the guy won’t ever be able to cope with this. Normally, in the city, he’s in the bar every night! Astonishingly, though, he didn’t leave the house. Instead, every evening we sat around the large table – about 18, 20 people – and ate together and discussed things, and to some people’s horror, we played Chinese roulette, which is a truth game as you see in the film… But you have to cope with that! It’s a good learning experience! Because you’re dealing with things that you don’t usually talk about, and that are not bad to talk about sometimes. By doing that, you see your own reflection: How do others see you? Most people won’t tell you if you’re an idiot – so you learn that in games like that. I find that marvellous.

Pure psychotherapy.

Exactly. For some people, it was also pure psycho-terror.

How did such an intense relationship end after nine years? Lili Marleen is ascribed to you as your last film with Fassbinder, although you don’t appear in the credits.

I didn’t make that film, not even partially. My last film with Fassbinder was The Marriage of Maria Braun. That work wasn’t easy. There were drugs involved, as everyone knows, and it was…very difficult. It got very, very complicated. After that, I should have had a contract to make Berlin Alexanderplatz with him. Beforehand, I had shot a film with another director and he didn’t like that at all. He was always jealous about things like that. So when we met to look for locations in Berlin, he felt he had to punish me again – he just didn’t speak to me anymore; instead, he always told the assistants in front of me that they should tell the cameraman what to do… And that carried on for two days. I’d already experienced many of his games and it had reached a point when I thought, I’m not actually interested in this childishness anymore. And then for a whole year – Berlin Alexanderplatz was a very large project – after my experience with Maria Braun, I decided that I didn’t want to carry on like this. I told the production company that I wouldn’t make the film anymore. That wasn’t very pleasant to start with, of course, and they also tried to persuade me to continue, but it had all gone far enough.

Could one say that you had reached the point where you couldn’t learn anything more from him?

I wouldn’t say that, no. I’d have really liked to have made Berlin Alexanderplatz – it was great material and I could have experienced many, many things. You never stop learning in this job. You’re always experiencing new things, meeting new people – it never ends. It had reached a point where I had the feeling that the relationship was finished. That happens. At some point, everything reaches a conclusion. And that point had been reached.

Did you stay in touch up until his death?

We hardly stayed in contact, no. I was in Los Angeles at a friend’s place – he had actually brought us together – when I learnt that Fassbinder had died, and that affected us greatly. He really was someone who had a strong charisma and an effect on the life of the people around him.

One Comment

  1. C.Michol wrote:

    Ahhh, marvelous! Thank you.

    Sunday, February 8, 2015 at 04:43 | Permalink

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  1. [...] films with him.” The magazine mono.kultur has made available a brief but revealing excerpt from Edda Bauer’s issue-length interview with Michael Ballhaus, detailing his working relationship with Fassbinder, equal parts learning experience and a trying [...]

  2. here & now › A LIFETIME on Friday, February 12, 2016 at 12:06

    [...] and congratulations from Kreuzberg! Read a short excerpt of our interview with Michael Ballhaus here, or even better, order the full issue here. This was written by kvr. Posted on Friday, February [...]

  3. here & now › A LIFETIME on Friday, February 12, 2016 at 12:06

    [...] and congratulations from Kreuzberg! Read a short excerpt of our interview with Michael Ballhaus here, or even better, order the full issue here. This was written by kvr. Posted on Friday, February [...]