Wrap Shot: Despair

On the set of the period drama Despair (1978) are Michael Ballhaus, ASC, BVK (far right) and mercurial German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder (sitting at camera, foreground). The two filmmakers collaborated on 15 films together, beginning in 1971 with Whity

In an interview with American Cinematographer, actor Ulli Lommel revealed that Fassbinder had originally wanted another future ASC member, Jost Vacano, to shoot that picture: “Rainer had no choice but to try out Michael, though, and he gave him one of the most difficult setup ever: a four-minute traveling shot between five characters with a lot of focus shifts. It was almost impossible to do. I knew it was one of Fassbinder's sadistic ideas, because he wanted to see Michael fail. A couple of days later, though, Rainer and I watched the dailies of that scene. When the lights came on, he stood up with tears in his eyes, hugged me and said, ‘Ulli, this guy is a genius!’ That was the start of their long and beautiful relationship.” 

The script for Despair written by Tom Stoppard was based on the novel of the same name by Vladimir Nabokov about the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, with the film starring Dirk Bogarde (pictured at top of the page) as a cash-strapped Russian émigré businessman plotting to take advantage of a life insurance policy.

With by far the biggest budget of any film he had made by that point, Despair was Fassbinder’s first in English, and his first working with another writer’s script. 

The picture screened at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, where it earned a nomination for the Palme d'Or. The film was also honored at the German Film Awards, with the director and cinematographer both winning in their respective categories. 

“Michael Ballhaus’ camera movements are as elaborate and exuberant as Stoppard’s words, making for one of Fassbinder’s most riveting achievements,” noted the Lincoln Film Center.

You’ll find much more about Ballhaus’ life and work here.

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