Robby Müller, “Master of Light,” Dies at Seventy-Eight

The great cinematographer Robby Müller, who passed away on Tuesday at the age of seventy-eight, was an incredibly versatile artist, but he remains most famous for the distinctive styles he developed in the work of two directors: Wim Wenders, with whom he introduced an entirely new color palette to the screen, and Jim Jarmusch, whose richly textured imagery renewed viewers’ appreciation for the beauty of black and white.

Paris, Texas, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1984, is probably the best-known collaboration between Müller and Wenders, but it was their 1977 film The American Friend that “became a whole new school” for directors of photography, as Wenders put it to Nina Siegal in the New York Times. The film “laid a new standard for how to deal with color and light.”

Wenders elaborated in the video below that accompanied a major Müller exhibition at the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam in 2016. While most DPs go out of their way to avoid or correct any fluorescent, tungsten, or neon lighting on a set because it contrasts so sharply with natural daylight, Müller insisted, “We’re going to keep them all.” Wenders smiles as he recalls Müller’s efforts to keep the processing lab from “correcting” the colors. “The things that other people took out as mistakes we used as a virtue,” adds Wenders.

Müller and Jarmusch’s collaborations include films in color such as Mystery Train and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, but Down by Law and Dead Man are especially remarkable for the texture and depth of the black-and-white cinematography. In the immediate wake of the news of Müller’s death, Jarmusch reaffirmed his debt in a tweet: “I love him so very much. He taught me so many things, and without him, I don’t think I would know anything about filmmaking.”

In a 2002 interview on the Criterion edition of Down by Law, Müller talks about his ambivalence toward beauty, the importance of blocking, and the challenges of lighting at night.

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