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

The Daily — Jul 4, 2018

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.

As Jarmusch told EYE, Müller taught him that the first and foremost consideration in making a film is “the feeling of the story.” The characters come second, and perhaps surprisingly for a cinematographer, the actual imagery ranks third. Lars von Trier, with whom Müller worked on Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, reiterates Jarmusch’s observation that, while Müller had a thorough and always up-to-date knowledge of the technical aspects of filmmaking, he never let it stand in the way of the primary aim, namely, to establish an “atmosphere.”

Writing in the Guardian in 2014, John Patterson suggested that because Müller had been born and raised in Curaçao, an island in the Dutch Caribbean, and didn’t know the Netherlands until his family moved there in 1953 when he was thirteen, he saw the world through the eyes of an outsider. For Patterson, Müller’s work in the mid-’80s with Alex Cox on Repo Man, with William Friedkin on To Live and Die in L.A., and with Barbet Schroeder on Barfly comprised an “informal” Los Angeles trilogy. These films are “city symphonies that partake of Müller’s thirst for night-time, neon, and moving cars, renewing our stale ideas about the most photographed, least understood city in the west.”

When the American Society of Cinematographers presented its International Award to Müller in 2013, fellow cinematographer John Bailey noted in his tribute that Müller’s work is “framed by a singular guideline” expressed in the quote most often cited since his passing: “When I choose to work on a film, the most important thing to me is that it is about human feelings. I try to work with directors who want their films to touch the audience, and make people discuss what the film was about long after they have left the cinema.” 

Bailey also asked for a few words from esteemed cinematographer Ed Lachman. “For me,” Lachman told him, “he was the Zen Practitioner of image and light—documenting what was unique about a location and its changing light. Robby also had an internal rhythm and grace in his camera operating—his hand holding the top of a BL 3 magazine, allowing the camera to become part of his body, and always feeling the image.” Müller had a singular talent for capturing that feeling and passing it along to us.

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