When the great Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller died last Tuesday—passing away at age 78 in Amsterdam after a long illness—he left behind a filmography that pretty much read like a “greatest hits” survey of 20th century independent film. More than any anyone else’s, Müller’s eye defined the look of the American and European art house cinema as indie film first began to really explode in the 1980s—a decade whose underground film output I personally adore, and the look of which is largely defined by Müller’s naturalistic palette.
But Müller’s career extended beyond the Reagan era, in both directions. He began his career in the mid-1970s as a primary figure in the New German Cinema movement—most notably as collaborator to Wim Wenders (he worked with the filmmaker on a total of nine features throughout his lifetime.) His career continued throughout the ‘90s, finally concluding in 2002 as ill health forced Müller into early retirement. He worked with Jim Jarmusch five times, and Lars von Trier twice. Not to mention: William Friedkin, Barbet Schroeder, Michelangelo Antonioni, Peter Bogdanovich—and so on. Not a bad CV.
Müller was nominated for a total of four Film Independent Spirit Awards—for Down By Law (1986), Barfly (1987), Mystery Train (1989) and Dead Man (1985). So here now are eight of our favorite Robby Müller moments from three decades’ worth of amazing work.
MYSTERY TRAIN (1989)
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Masatoshi Nagase, Youki Kudoh, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Cinqué Lee
Where You Can Watch: Filmstruck, Amazon, Kanopy
Why We Love It: In Mystery Train, Müller and director Jim Jarmusch envision Memphis, TN as a land of myths and stories: tall tales, music trivia, ghost stories, idle chitchat between tourists visiting from out of town. A foreigner himself, Müller photographs the hardscrabble Southern cultural Mecca through a fuzzy haze of blue dusk and Edward Hopper neon. Tracking shots are slow and wide, emphasizing the environment as much as the characters populating them. The results are equal parts documentary and dream.
24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE (2002)
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Starring: Steve Coogan, Lennie James, John Thomson, Paul Popplewell
Where You Can Watch: Google Play, Vudu, Playstation One, iTunes, YouTube
Why We Love It: In his ‘80s heyday, Müller was famous for his rigid formality, barely ever shooting handheld; he preferred to keep his camera on sticks and dollies. But by the time of his final film—Michael Winterbottom’s wonderfully irreverent music impresario biopic 24 Hour Party People—the cinematographer had loosened considerably. Here Müller’s camera is untethered, playfully chasing whatever action catches its interest; the viewer feels like another character in the scene, another 24-hour party person.
TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985)
Director: William Friedkin
Starring: William L. Petersen, Willem Dafoe, John Pankow, Debra Feuer
Where You Can Watch: DVD, Blu-ray
Why We Love It: Director William Friedkin’s stated goal for the centerpiece chase sequence in his 1985 cop actioner To Live and Die in L.A. was to somehow top himself, having already committed one of the all-time car chases to film in 1971’s The French Connection. Luckily, Friedkin had Müller riding shotgun—together, they plunged plainclothes police buddies William Peterson and John Pankow into an epic, eight-minute battle of vehicular wills, culminating in a high-speed getaway going the wrong way down the 710 freeway. Through it all, Müller keeps the action clean, precise and easy-to-follow—chaos cinema this isn’t.
REPO MAN (1984)
Director: Alex Cox
Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estavez, Tracey Walter
Where You Can Watch: Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu
Why We Love It: Like all great artists, Müller makes his craft look easy, using natural light and a minimal color manipulation to render memorable tableaux both gritty and beautiful. Sometimes just a simple effect, like the woozy heat atmosphere of an East L.A. bonfire, could lend just the right amount of odd otherworldliness to a quirky monologue about shrimp and time travel. Just see Alex Cox’s cult-favorite Repo Man, which turns the concrete ugliness of industrial L.A. into a mystical alien environment perfect for blue collar philosophizing.
PARIS, TEXAS (1984)
Director: Wim Wenders
Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja Kinski, Dean Stockwell
Where You Can Watch: Filmstruck, Kanopy, iTunes, Amazon
Why We Love It: The height of Müller and Wenders’ collaboration, Paris tells the story of broken drifter Travis (Harry Dean Stanton), as he slowly re-enters society and sets about repairing his various relationships—all leading to an astounding 10-minute monologue delivered to his ex-wife (Kinski) from behind the partition of a seedy Houston peep show booth. Here, Müller’s creates multiple planes of visual interest, each emphasizing a different character beat or emotion: the back of Travis’s head, Travis’s face reflected in the booth’s porthole window, Kinski’s Jane behind glass, Jane’s face reflected in the two-way mirror, etc. It’s a deceptively complicated setup, but with purpose behind each shot.
BREAKING THE WAVES (1996)
Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge, Jean-Marc Barr
Where You Can Watch: Filmstruck, Kanopy, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon
Why We Love It: One of the defining films of the 1990s, Lars von Trier’s punishing study of the ecstasy of agony of romantic devotion also characterized Müller’s looser, more documentary-influenced camerawork (like we’ve already seen with 24 Hour Party People.) Another notable element here is the purposefully drab and de-saturated color palette, which stands in contrast to the almost pastel naturalism of his 1980s work, all the better to underline the lack of vibrancy and life Emily Watson’s Bess feels when husband Jan (Skarsgård) is away on his oil rig—a yearning that will have fateful consequences for them both.
THE AMERICAN FRIEND (1989)
Director: Wim Wenders
Starring: Dennis Hopper, Bruno Ganz, Lisa Kruezer, Gérard Blain
Where You Can Watch: Filmstruck, Amazon, Vudu
Why We Love It: An adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, this early example of Müller’s work with Wim Wenders (during the New German Cinema era) is an effective, arty thriller, starring the great Bruno Ganz as a mild-mannered Berlin picture framer who gets tangled up in some tense film noir falderal with duplicitous American expat Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper.) The plot is a little slippery, but the film’s primary utility is as a travelogue of “Me Decade” West Germany, captured in a sumptuous sodium-light glow by Müller’s camera.
THEY ALL LAUGHED (1981)
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Ben Gazzara, John Ritter, Dorothy Stratten
Where You Can Watch: DVD
Why We Love It: Müller’s first English-language film was Peter Bogdanovich’s excellent-but-doomed 1981 ensemble comedy They All Laughed. Bogdanovich tried (and failed) to release the film independently in the wake of his grief over the murder of girlfriend Dorothy Stratten—one of the film’s stars. But the movie’s troubled history doesn’t sap its quality, or the work of Müller, who gives the breezy action of a typical 1930s/40s-era screwball comedy a crisp 1980s makeover—his touch would never be quite as light ever again.