The Ballhaus School

As the biennial Slow Food on Film festival approaches (Bologna, May 7-11), here we look back to a visit from a master of world cinema.

Last July, Michael Ballhaus, trusted cinematographer to a string of great directors – from Rainer Werner Fassbinder in his native Germany to Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese in the USA – came to Italy.
His mission was to teach students at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, near the Slow Food headquarters in Bra, how to document food production and preparation techniques on film?

As part of the course cum workshop, he took students to the Eataly quality food supermarket in Turin to shoot an experimental documentary A Day at EATALY.
Ballhaus has documented the subject of food on film on many an occasion, creating sequences that are now a subject for study in film school, especially with Martin with Scorsese.

In The Last Temptation of Christ, for example, we see suppers (Last included) with Mediterranean fare, the oil-wine-bread triad, much to the fore, though the sacred screenplay obviously contemplates fasting as well as eating.

In The Age of Innocence, the camera captures even the most minor details of the elegantly laid tables – some frames comparable to veritable still lifes – of the late 19th-century New York bourgeoisie.

In Goodfellas, instead, Ballhaus jumps several rungs down the city’s social ladders to record the table manners of the mob in the Brooklyn and Queens of the seventies, once more with painstaking attention to detail.

‘In prison dinner was always a big thing. We had a pasta course and then we had a meat or a fish. Paulie did the prep work. He was doing a year for contempt and he had this wonderful system for doing the garlic. He used a razor and he used to slice it so thin it used to liquefy in the pan with just a little oil. It was a very good system.’
The speaker is Henry Hill, the main character, son of an Irish father and a Sicilian mother. As we listen to his words, the camera moves from the face of mobster Paulie Cicero to pauses on his hands, on the blade, on the garlic.

Among the wiseguys turned cooks in gaol, we see an old-timer (played by Scorsese’s real-life father) intent on making a pasta sauce. ‘I thought they used too many onions, but it was still a very good sauce,’ complains Hill. Free again, a cocaine-stoned Hill finds the time in a trouble-filled Sunday (starting with a near car crash, proceeding with a botched attempt to sell a stash of guns and a forced hospital check-up, and ending with definitive arrest) to respect his role as family cook.

‘I was cooking the dinner that night. And I had to start braising the beef, pork butt and veal shanks for the tomato sauce … I was making ziti with the meat gravy. And I was planning to roast some peppers over the flames and I was gonna put on some string beans with some olive oil and garlic and I had some beautiful cutlets that were cut just right that I was gonna fry up before dinner just as an appetizer.’
To capture the scene, Ballhaus tracks through the chaotic Hill family kitchen, where we see Henry browning the meat, his kids chopping onions, carrots and celery for the soffritto, and his wife stirring the sauce. Also memorable in the film are other meals, either in the family or with the famiglia: whole trayfuls of parmigiana of glistening blue eggplant and steaming meatballs, barbecues of plump sausages and succulent pork ribs.

In another unforgettably frenetic running shot, Ballhaus whisks us through the kitchens of the Copacabana Club on Manhattan’s East Side: cookers and crockery, saucepans and skillets, boiling water and sizzling sauces, scullery boys squalling, waiters dashing, chefs hollering. Food, techniques and skills always observed with passion, sometimes almost with love.
These sequences inevitably come to mind watching A Day at EATALY. The kneading of bread dough, the garnishing of a pizza, the filleting of fish, the pounding of meat, the cleaving of a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano — these are just some of the examples of working with raw materials that the film documents.

A director of photographer by profession, Ballhaus by no means repudiates technique, but he does place a great deal of emphasis on the creative use of images as a function of the plot.

‘I never went through the normal cinematographer’s school. I was an assistant for only three months of my life. I had no clue. I could expose film, but I had no experience — I was not really a technician. 

So I had to learn while doing it. I had professional people, like gaffers and assistants, who helped me to get it right. And I learned by watching other people’s movies – I went to the movies every day. I also learned in the editing room, looking at the stuff I had shot, and learning from my mistakes. But it was never a technical approach, it was always the storytelling approach … What is the best or most effective way to tell this story? That has always been what interests me.’

Today, thanks to the improved quality of film stock and lenses, it is possible to shoot in many situations with just natural light. The cinematographer has thus become increasingly a creative artist, a partner to the director. Preproduction work is also vital:

‘Sometimes it would appear that preproduction is less exhausting that shooting, but I’ve found it to be the opposite many times. During preproduction, you are constantly getting new impressions, and you have to put them all together with a script, working with people you may not really know yet. You have to decide what you really want to do with a scene before you know everybody, before you know the actors, and their chemistry, and how all this is working. After a location scout, I’m totally exhausted, wiped out. When you go in to shoot, however, there are many things that are given already. Many of the difficult decisions have been made. When something comes up, you can deal with it because you have a frame of reference.’ 

The shooting of A Day at EATALY presumably followed the same guidelines: the UNISG workshop in Pollenzo as a moment of mutual acquaintance and idea exchange, the Eataly supermarket in Turin as a set on which the story unfolds naturally, almost spontaneously.
A Day at EATALY is the first successful experiment in a relationship that is bound to last. The film works because it achieves the declared aim of the overall project: to document food and historical memory.

Michael Ballhaus once said that, ‘It doesn’t happen very often that you meet somebody you’ve never worked with before, especially someone who is not very experienced, and is a lot younger, and you really enjoy helping that person to come through with what he wants’. Maybe, during his stay in Italy, he actually lived the experience he describes in these words — but with a number of people, not with one only.

Ballhaus, incidentally, also gets to say the last word in the film ‘Delizioso!’ he exclaims as he tucks into a tub of Eataly ice-cream.

John Irving is a collaborator of the Slow Food Editore publishing company

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