“The absence of colour can be a stronger factor than the presence of colour.” – Robby Müller
Revered as the ‘Master of Light’, Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller was celebrated unanimously by filmmakers and cinephiles alike for his brilliant understanding of light and time as he cleverly manipulated the lighting and subsequent imagery to suit his minimalist and naturalistic style. A well-known figure in the indie realm of filmmaking, Müller gained recognition when he debuted with Wim Wenders’ 1970 film Summer in the City, thus becoming a well-known figure in West German cinema. Wenders went on to become one of Müller’s most frequent and favoured collaborators as they worked on various masterfully crafted films together.
Having worked closely with the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Peter Bogdanovich, Lars von Trier and Barbet Schroeder, Müller’s oeuvre transcends genres and he is celebrated for his ability to bring out the poetic beauty of the film irrespective of the genre it belongs to. It is with Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves that Müller gained a breakthrough into international cinema. Long-time collaborator Jarmusch, like Wenders, worked brilliantly with Müller as their individual creative sensibilities found perfect outlets in one another. Both were as Müller liked to call them, the cinematographer’s “soulmates” as he wanted to feel at ease with the people he collaborated with.
As Jarmusch once said, “Robby would teach me things like it says in the script that it’s a sunny day, but then on the day of the shoot it would be cloudy and about to rain. Most people would just say, OK, let’s not shoot today. Robby would always say, let’s think, maybe the clouds and the rain is better, let’s not be closed off, let’s be open to what we might do.”
Müller’s visually enticing imagery which upholds the ravishing cinematic imagery of the 1970s to the ’90s and beyond are cherished by all. With a career spanning over nearly 33 years, this cinematographer’s inimitable skills and vast contribution to cinema remains unparalleled; his style has left an indelible mark. Having passed away on July 3, 2018, today marks his third death anniversary.
To celebrate his greatness and oeuvre, let us take a look at the 10 best films from his extensive works to locate how he improved the quality of films with his prolific vision and knack for lighting, imagery and poetic beauty.
10 films that Robby Müller made better:
10. Kings of the Road (Wim Wenders, 1976)
This German road film focuses on Bruno Winter’s encounter with a depressed and disillusioned Robert Lander who is suffering from the heartbreak of a conjugal separation as well as a failed suicide attempt. The two hit the road together and strike up a friendship, engaging in varied conversations ranging from relationships to the steady decline of German cinema as they visit dilapidated theatres to fix worn-out projectors.
Wenders was Müller’s most frequent collaborator, having worked together in eleven films within a span of 25 years, from 1970 to 1995. Shot in monochrome, the director hit the bullseye by hoping to make this colour scheme make it seem more realistic. The film has a lot of prolonged silences as the characters drive through the German countryside, into lonely towns along empty roads that gives ample space for the thoughts of the characters to settle in. Impeccably shot, Müller and Wenders manage to manoeuvre time, space and the general atmosphere to add a sense of charm to the film. The long shots show Müller’s nuanced and naturalistic style, adding a strange sense of poignancy to the film.
“The tracks, the gravel, the timetable, the sky, the clouds. A man with a suitcase. An empty suitcase!”
9. To Live and Die in L.A. (William Friedkin, 1985)
Müller has never been one to stick to genres and proved his prolific skills with the wonderful shots in Friedkin’s action film. The thrilling chase sequences and other chaotic action sequences make the film a riveting watch. Friedkin allegedly hired Müller as he wanted to speed up the filming procedure for his indie film and was not unaware of the cinematographer’s efficient working skills. Friedkin also wanted all the actors to improvise their scenes which is usually challenging for the cinematographer as they are unaware of whom to focus on. However, Müller made brilliant use of this opportunity and was given full liberty by the director to “just shoot” the actors on whom the director lay the onus of being in the frame.
One of Friedkin’s most popular and rich films, starring William Petersen, Willem Dafoe and John Pankow, cops Richard Chance and Jimmy Hart pursue the vicious counterfeit criminal Eric Masters. When Hart is killed, Chance loses his patience and vows to avenge his partner’s death by going after Masters; his obsession for justice gets the better of him and soon his methods defy the same laws he was a proponent of.
“Buddy, you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
8. Down by Law (Jim Jarmusch, 1986)
Three cellmates confined to a claustrophobic Louisana jail and hailing from different backgrounds decide to escape from prison. Starring John Lurie, Roberto Benigni and Tom Waits, this well-crafted and evocative film focuses on their attempts to break out; however, it is not like any other jailbreak film that focuses only on the escape. Instead, it takes time to unravel the conflict and interaction between the convicts in a monochromatic backdrop.
Jim Jarmusch would frequently collaborate with Müller as well and was in awe of the latter’s artistic skills. Down by Law is funny yet profound and the monochromatic scheme allows Müller to showcase his skills at his best. His lazy and slow camerawork helps uphold the beauty of each scene that seems like a dream caught in reality. Jarmusch and Müller had a perfect understanding of one another which helped bring out the best of their individual creative genius. Jarmusch even referred to Müller as a “Dutch interior painter”, comparing him to the likes of “Vermeer or de Hoeck”, talking about how Müller was simply “born in the wrong century”.
“It is a sad and beautiful world.”
7. The American Friend (Wim Wenders, 1977)
Starring Dennis Hopper and Bruno Ganz, Wenders’ film is based on the con-man Tom Ripley who sells the works made by an art forger. Ripley soon meets the local picture framer Jonathan Zimmermann who is dying of leukaemia and decides to enlist his help to carry out a dirty job for himself, knowing that he would want to leave behind some fortune for his family.
Wenders, after a successful stint with German films, wanted to work with his favourite novelist Patricia Highsmith. This extremely stylish neo-noir film and brilliant performances receive an added dimension by the wonderful incorporation of the classic 1970s thriller look by Müller. Using shadow and lighting to his liking, Müller’s seamless transitions and unconventional shots simply heighten the existential anxiety in this atmospheric thriller and makes Wenders film an absolute visual delight.
“It’s December 6th, 1976. There’s nothing to fear but fear itself. I know less and less about who I am, or who anybody else is.”
6. Mystery Train (Jim Jarmusch, 1989)
With the Arcade Hotel as the common setting for the unravelling of three stories taking place in downtown Memphis. With all the stories having a deep-rooted connection to Elvis Presley, there are two Japanese tourists who are avid fans of blues and travel the city, an Italian widow who has a chance encounter with Presley’s ghost as well as locals who seek refuge in the hotel after robbing a liquor shop. The stories take place parallelly and soon intersect when the director combines one or more events together.
Jarmusch shot this film in colours, unlike his previous features. There is a sense of mellow sadness and humour in the raw atmospheric film that is littered with quintessential long-takes and clever manipulation of colours which elaborately portrays the transient beauty of Memphis nights. Müller even received a nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards for his brilliant cinematography that complemented Jarmusch’s eccentric creative vision adding a beautiful melody to this feverishly funny and beautiful film.
“I’m very happy. That’s just the way my face is.”
5. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, 1999)
Jim Jarmusch had declared that the film was specifically written for Forest Whitaker without whom he would have probably quit the project. Whitaker plays Ghost Dog, the titular character who is a hitman by profession and lives his life following the code of the samurai. After his recent job does not reap desired results, Ghost Dog finds himself at loggerheads with the mafia he works for and must evade death and disregard while staying loyal to his code of living.
Jarmusch and Müller worked together on five projects, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai being their penultimate collaboration. Jarmusch employs the philosophical code of conduct of the samurai lifestyle in his eccentric thriller which is accentuated by Müller’s moody and hypnotic cinematography. Müller, who has a knack for capturing the drawling motion of transition and travel, highlights the sense of alienation and desolate quietude to showcase the journey of this tragic hero who tries to maintain his calm amidst the chaotic violence he is drowning in.
“It is a good viewpoint to see the world as a dream. When you have something like a nightmare, you will wake up and tell yourself that it was only a dream. It is said that the world we live in is not a bit different from this.”
4. Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996)
Before delving deep into understanding Müller’s brilliant work in this film, it is pertinent to note that Von Trier, one of the most distinguished and unique filmmakers in cinema had founded the Dogme 95 movement with Thomas Vinterberg where some of the rules included the focus on mainly the story, thematic tropes and acting rather than special effects and more. Müller, who is known for his ability to adapt to the whims of the director, was the perfect fit for this film and masterfully controlled light to his advantage to add a sense of intimacy to the film. With a simplistic style, Müller shot the film using a handheld 35mm camera and did not include extra effects which helped heighten the sheer raw conflict of repression and religion in the film.
Starring Emily Watson who received an Academy Award nomination for her incredible performance, the film is set in early ’70s Scotland where a woman named Bess McNeil and oil-rig worker Jan are in love. After Jan is paralysed in a freak accident, Bess feels guilty and even more so when Jan urges her to engage in sexual activities with other men to appease her needs as Jan, now paralysed, is unable to perform well.
“I don’t understand what you’re saying. How can you love a word? You cannot love words. You can’t be in love with a word. You can only love another human being. That’s perfection.”
3. Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995)
Set in the late 1880s, the film sees Johnny Depp as the meek William Blake who hopes of making a good living for himself. He soon meets a Native American named Nobody who, via various funny yet violent situations, aids Blake in his physical and spiritual quest-like journey. Blake, who initially has nothing to lose or fall back upon, soon finds himself exposed to the chaotic fragility of existence and he plunges into the unknown.
Considered one of Jarmusch’s best works to date, the film has amassed a massive fan following over the years. The monochromatic colour scheme of the film complements the spiritual story and the mystic outlook of the director. The atmospheric psychedelia is overwhelming and Müller complements the auteur’s artistic vision by upholding the brilliant western landscape in near dream-like sequences. It is a testament to the superb Jarmusch-Müller synergy that results in a visual and introspective masterpiece.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.”
2. 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)
The film sees a nostalgic return of Müller to his early days as a young cinematographer as he once again uses handheld cameras in Winterbottom’s film, following his last stint in Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. However, in Winterbottom’s film, the effect is meant to be completely different as the bumpy camera movements are supposed to add humour and charm to the story that is, according to Peter Bradshaw “a funky faux-doc/collage” comprising humour, music and more, reflecting on the bygone times, unravelling like a classic Greek tragedy. Being one of Müller’s final projects, it is inarguably one of his best works to date.
Peter hook said that the film was “about the biggest c*** in Manchester, played by the second biggest”. Steve Coogan plays Tony Wilson in 1970s Manchester who is looking for ways in which he can do something purposeful. He persuades the network he works for to televise the performance of Sex Pistols which proves to be a revelation. Soon, Wilson is requested by up and coming punk bands to be managed which leads to the creation of the legendary The Hacienda Club and Factory Records label.
“The smaller the attendance the bigger the history. There were 12 people at the last supper. Half a dozen at Kitty Hawk. Archimedes was on his own in the bath.”
1. Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984)
Travis Henderson is broken at his core. He has been missing for four years when he suddenly emerges from the desert. Found by his brother, Walt, they return to Los Angeles together as Travis wants to reunite with his son Hunter who has been raised by his uncle and his family. Soon, the father-son duo embarks on a soulful journey to find his wife Jane who had left after Travis’ mysterious disappearance.
With a conglomeration of German and Dutch sensibilities, this is one of the best ’80s American films and considered one of Wenders’ greatest emotional masterpieces. It urges the viewers to take a deeper look into the American soul. Wenders confided that he was a “little scared by the idea” of the film being able to “touch people in a big way”.
The film reflects Robby Müller’s style at its best as he employs his brilliant understanding of lazy long-takes and lighting which adds a growing sense of loneliness despair, pathos and remorse to the film. High on nostalgia and longing, Paris, Texas is synonymous with Müller’s greatness and reflects the incredible genius of the late cinematographer.
“I wanted to see him so bad that I didn’t even dare imagine him anymore.”