“The absence of color can be a stronger factor than the presence of color.” – Robby Müller
A master of light has passed. In a career that spanned four decades, and over 50 films, Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller barely made a bad film. And more often than not, the celebrated director of photography was involved in crafting the visuals of a stone-cold classic of modern cinema. Today, Dutch publication De Volkskrant reported that the renowned filmmaker passed away in Amsterdam. Müller was 78. The family told the paper he had been ill for some time and it was reported that he had been suffering from vascular dementia, a degenerative disease that has prevented him from speaking and walking for several years.
Known for his low-tech, pioneering camerawork and virtuoso lighting effects, Film Comment once called him the “greatest Dutchman with light since Vermeer.”
Müller’s career began in shorts, but then took off in the early 1970s when began working with German director Wim Wenders, became his visual muse, soulmate and never looked back. Müller collaborated with Wenders on ten films including his debut “Summer In The City,” “The American Friend,” “Paris, Texas,” parts of “Buena Vista Social Club,” and “Beyond The Clouds,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s final feature-length drama that Wenders was brought on to help co-direct following Antonioni’s debilitating stroke years earlier.
“We would dream it up a little bit, the atmosphere of the film, and then I would leave it completely to Robby to find the light,” Wenders once said of how he collaborated with Müller.
As his international reputation grew and crystalized, Müller began working in the U.S. n the late 1970s and early ‘80s. He quickly became Jim Jarmusch’s favorite lighting director and shot “Down by Law,” “Mystery Train,” “Dead Man,” “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” and parts of the “Coffee and Cigarettes” short film compilation.
“He taught me later a lot about color, as well, and how it relates to your emotions,” Jarmusch once said of his former DP. “Or how the sky at magic hour changes every ten seconds and becomes a different shade.”
Along the way, Müller worked on many classics and many auteurs; Alex Cox‘s “Repo Man,” William Friedkin‘s “To Live And Die In L.A.,” Barbet Schroeder’s “Barfly” and Sally Potter’s “The Tango Lesson.” Known for his love of natural light, his textured black and white work, but also the dimensional colors perhaps best exemplified in the stunning masterwork of “Paris, Texas,” later in his career, Müller began to start experimenting with more stark, handheld and minimalist works, lensing Lars Von Trier’s classic from the Dogme film movement period, “Breaking The Waves,” and the digitally-shot musical “Dancer In The Dark.” Müller also photographed Michael Winterbottom’s “24 Hour Party People” which was also shot on lo-fi digital video. He became inactive after the mid-aughts when his health began deteriorating.
Despite working on films that won the Palme d’Or and were nominated for Oscars, Müller was never awarded any major honors. However, in 2013, the American Society of Cinematographers bestowed him their International Achievement Award for his lifeworks.
“There’s a certain kind of magic or poetry to whatever he shoots, but he’s much more grounded than that,” Steve McQueen, director of “12 Years A Slave,” said on the eve of a 2016 retrospective of Müller’s work” (they worked together on the 2002 film installation “Carib’s Leap”).
“His work’s timeless,” William Friedkin said in 2013. “He taught me all about composition, and in the end, I adopted his style — that’s how big an influence he was.”