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Robby Müller, Inventive Cinematographer, Dies at 78

Robby Müller, the Dutch cinematographer whose inventive use of lighting and artful approach to composition were consistent elements of films by directors like Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch, died on July 3 at his home in Amsterdam. He was 78.

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Richard Sandomir
, New York Times

Robby Müller, the Dutch cinematographer whose inventive use of lighting and artful approach to composition were consistent elements of films by directors like Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch, died on July 3 at his home in Amsterdam. He was 78.

His wife, Andrea Müller, said the cause was complications of vascular dementia.

Although Müller’s role was to enhance the vision of directors, his use of natural light and long wide shots — as well as his disdain for what he called “camera acrobatics” — established him as a cinematographic auteur.

“He was inspired by painters who used light the way Caravaggio and Vermeer did,” Jarmusch said in a telephone interview. “I used to tease him that he should have been born in the same century with Vermeer.”

In “Dead Man” (1995), Jarmusch’s hypnotic black-and-white Western, an accountant (Johnny Depp) flees a 19th-century frontier town after killing a man (and being wounded himself). Müller’s cinematography shimmers with the clarity of characters’ faces, the grittiness of minute details of the town’s metal works and the landscapes Depp’s character crosses with a Native American named Nobody.

The film ends with Müller’s memorably framed shot of Depp’s dying character — who is wrapped in Native American garb as he drifts to sea in a canoe — watching Nobody (Gary Farmer) and a brutal bounty hunter (Lance Henriksen) gun each other down on the shore.

“He never tried to put a signature across, but inevitably he did,” Jarmusch said. “He really taught me how to make a film: how to avoid the obvious in locations; how to use beauty in the service of the story and characters; and how black and white can stimulate the imagination by a reduction of information — that it can be more dreamlike and evocative than color.”

In an interview in 2002 for the Criterion Collection DVD release of Jarmusch’s “Down by Law” (1986), Müller discussed his cinematic philosophy.

“You should not feel the camera,” he said. “The story should be well told without interruption from camera acrobatics, which is one of the reasons I like to film in black-and-white, which is like a poem.”

The director Steve McQueen, who worked with Müller on the short film “Carib’s Leap” (2002), compared him to a blues musician. “He plays just a few chords and he conveys what he needs to convey,” McQueen told The New York Times in 2016. “He’s a purist.”

Müller’s closest collaborator was Wenders, with whom he made 12 feature films. In a telephone interview, Wenders singled out a notable Mülleresque shot in “The American Friend” (1977), his noir drama adapted from “Ripley’s Game,” Patricia Highsmith’s 1974 novel: Dennis Hopper lying on a pool table, taking one Polaroid picture after another of himself, each snapshot dropping onto his still figure.

Seven years later, Wenders and Müller teamed up on “Paris, Texas,” the story of a drifter (Harry Dean Stanton) looking to reunite with the wife and son he left years earlier, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

In the opening scene, much of which Müller shot from a helicopter, Stanton emerges from the desert: a solitary figure walking purposefully, wearing a rumpled gray pinstripe suit, knotted tan tie and red ball cap. He roams for miles, drinks the last drop of water from a jug, then enters a dark, dusty building. After gobbling some crushed ice, he collapses on the floor.

“It’s indeed a beautiful film, one that will surely convince doubters that Müller is one of the cinema’s best cameramen,” the critic and film professor Holly Willis wrote in Variety. “He gives the story a surface polish that hints of Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe Americana paintings.”

When Travis, Stanton’s character, enters the peep show where his much younger wife (Nastassja Kinski) works, he sees her through a one-way mirror. She cannot see him. They speak by telephone, but he does not identify himself.

Wenders recalled that Müller insisted on using a type of optical glass that allowed for an effect used when Kinski’s character realizes she is speaking to her estranged husband. With the lights boosted greatly on her side of the glass and turned down on Stanton’s, she presses her face to the glass. Fused with Stanton’s stoic reflection (and shot from his side), their faces become superimposed — her blond tresses frame his face.

“I totally owe it to him that he insisted that we get that glass; it was the most expensive piece of equipment on the set,” Wenders said by telephone. “Robby operated a camera and lit a camera like nobody else.”

Robert Müller was born on April 4, 1940, in Willemstad, Curaçao, and lived for a time in Indonesia before moving to Amsterdam with his family when he was 13. He studied at the Netherlands Film Academy in the early 1960s and then worked as an apprentice to cinematographer Gerard Vandenberg.

While learning his craft from Vandenberg in West Germany, he met Wenders, who was then a film student. In 1969 they made a short film, “Alabama (2000 Light Years)”, the first chapter in their partnership.

Müller was also a director of photography for the directors Peter Bogdanovich (on “Saint Jack” and “They All Laughed”), Jerry Schatzberg “(“Honeysuckle Rose”), William Friedkin (“To Live and Die in L.A.”), Barbet Schroeder “(Barfly”) and Lars von Trier (“Breaking the Waves”).

In “Repo Man” (1984), Alex Cox’s offbeat satire set in the world of the auto repossession business in Los Angeles, Müller’s photography earned praise from Boston Globe film critic Jay Carr, who said Müller was “one of the few cameramen able to capture on color film the alienation and uneasiness that the better noir directors captured in black and white.”

Though he was never nominated for an Academy Award, Müller won the 1996 New York Film Critics Circle Award for “Dead Man” and “Breaking the Waves,” and the American Society of Cinematographers’ International Award in 2013.

In addition to his wife, his survivors include a son, Jim, and a daughter, Camilla.

Müller worked extensively in the United States, cinematic territory that he said was never entirely familiar to him.

“Because I’m not an American and not living in this country,” he told American Cinematographer magazine in 1985, “every place I go I’m kind of baffled by what I see. I choose a point of view that somehow translates how I feel or how I felt the first time I saw something.”

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