President’s Desk: The Master of Light, Deconstructed

Kees van Oostrum, ASC (Photo by Jacek Laskus, ASC, PSC)

On July 4, news of the passing of Robby Müller, NSC, BVK came through various sites and sources. Many of the articles referred to him as the “Master of Light.” 

I was somewhat taken aback by the phrase because I would never think to refer to him as such. Not that his lighting was not extraordinary, but I had always felt that his visual strengths were so incredibly original, unpredictable and evocative. It was impossible to pin him down to one particular style. He was able to go from the classic style of Mysteries to the experimentation of Breaking the Waves — and in between, he showed us the impressionistic The American Friend, the seductive Paris, Texas, and the raunchy realism of To Live and Die in L.A.

I would be more inclined to categorize him as the “Master of the Universe.

Images of America: (cockwise from top left) Müller’s work in To Live and Die in L.A.; The American Friend; Paris Texas; and Repo Man.
Images of America: (cockwise from top left) Müller’s work in To Live and Die in L.A.; The American Friend; Paris Texas; and Repo Man.

I did not know him well, although we met several times over a 40-year period. I first met him when I was a PA on a Dutch documentary titled Bagger; one of the subjects to be filmed was a formation of sea tugboats, assembled for a one-time event at a specific time and place in the harbor. An impressive shot with a long lens was planned. But then the camera would not work — the motor only ran at a low, grinding speed. Car batteries were quickly patched together, and for short intervals the camera would run at erratic high-speed frame rates. The shot that was eventually put together dissolves in accidental slow motion — and it remains among the most impressive visuals I’ve ever experienced, one created by a man with great vision and determination.

We touched base again a few years later. After I finished film school, I asked him to shoot my first short film. At that time Robby was entrenched in the German industry and was beginning to gain wider recognition. Nevertheless, he agreed to shoot my project. We prepped, but then a big movie, Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, railroaded our collaboration. I have no regrets, though, as that movie proved to be one of the most inspiring films for me as a cinematographer. Robby’s eye for framing and lighting — in that film and beyond — was unique and revolutionary. His love affair with the color green was evocative, and the simplicity of his choices inspiring. 

The next time I ran into him was in a beachside motel in Santa Monica. I remember his disappointment with the American film industry — how much he revered its art form, only to discover firsthand the restrictions that it placed on him as a director of photography. The schedule, shots, authoritarian directors, finicky actors — it was a world that had become somewhat unbearable to him after a handful of projects in the States, and it made him decide that he would no longer look for a career here.

Mind you, he was not one to complain; he was an observer, and from his observations came a conclusion that was solely driven by the art of cinematography. He was there to tell the story, and to be specific about everything he did in relation to that.

Just recently I saw Claire Pijman’s documentary about Robby, Living the Light, which will be released later this year. In it, I discovered the incredible power of Robby’s visual diaries, which consisted of home movies and Polaroids that represented his efforts to study visual language. There is a direct connection between these visual “sketches” and his feature work — just as there is between Rembrandt’s etchings and his major paintings.

So, Robby, wherever in the universe you are now, we miss you dearly.

Kees van Oostrum  
ASC President

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