JIM JARMUSCH, SARA DRIVER, ED LACHMAN, AUTUMN DURALD ARKAPAW, HOYTE VAN HOYTEMA, AGNÈS GODARD, SHABIER KIRCHNER, CHRISTOPHER PORTER, SEAN PRICE WILLIAMS:
NINE FILM WORKERS ON ROBBY MÜLLER
When Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller passed away in 2018, he left behind a wealth of enduring, transcendent images, spanning the glory days of the New German Cinema in the late ’60s through to the dawn of the digital cinematography era. Accompanying our tribute series Robby Müller: Remain in Light, the Metrograph Journal has gathered quotes from nine film workers who have been touched by Müller and his work, either as long-time collaborators or keen-eyed admirers of his prodigious, painterly talent.
JIM JARMUSCH, DIRECTOR, DOWN BY LAW (1986), MYSTERY TRAIN (1989), GHOST DOG: WAY OF THE SAMURAI (1999)
Mystery Train (1989), dir. Jim Jarmusch, cinematography by Robby Müller.
It’s impossible to briefly describe Robby’s influence on me, and my life. He was my friend, my teacher, my collaborator. His mind was highly evolved aesthetically, obviously, but also technically and scientifically. He had a deep interest in areas of biology and physics, among others, and understood all creative aspects of filmmaking. Not only did Robby guide my knowledge of cinematography—light, composition and camera movement—but he always encouraged me to think on my feet, and to openly embrace accidents and “mistakes.” Robby was also very funny, playful and very anti-authoritarian. Rules are learned so they can be discarded, and hierarchies and competition are for those driven, pathetically, by ego, greed, and control of others. Robby was always open-minded and accepting, but never suffered fools, or those who behaved like they’re more important than others. I will always carry our friendship and our mutual experiences deep in my heart.
SARA DRIVER, DIRECTOR, WHEN PIGS FLY (1993)
When Pigs Fly (1993), dir. Sara Driver, cinematography by Robby Müller.
I always thought of him as the Rembrandt of cinema. The way he saw and used light and shadow to create beauty and mystery. Jim went to Rotterdam FF in 1980, a year before I went with my film You Are Not I (1981). Jim said be sure to say hello to Robby for him: “You will recognize Robby because he will be sitting at the bar next to the peanut machine.” Damn, if I didn’t go to Rotterdam, and there he was, exactly where Jim said he would be!
It was an honor to work with him on When Pigs Fly, a film that plays with in-camera effects and celebrates Robby’s use of light and shadow. To explore these old cinematic techniques was exciting for us both. For our ghost story, we shot rear- and front-screen, used half mirrors to create ghosts, and double exposures. We both learned a lot. I remember going to Geyer Lab in Berlin to do the color timing with Robby. The head of Geyer wanted to take us to lunch. When I told Robby, he said with his Peter Lorre-like accent, “Really he wants to take me to lunch.” I remember laughing and saying, “Yes, Robby, you are one of the most celebrated and incredible cinematographers alive. Of course he wants to take you to lunch.” Robby was in many ways unaware of his importance and role in the world of cinema.
ED LACHMAN, CINEMATOGRAPHER, CAROL (2015), AND ASSISTANT CAMERA ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND (1977)
Robby Müller, photo courtesy of Ed Lachman
Robby helped us to see and feel in light and colors, and how he moved his frames in the world around him.
Everyone wanted his touch.
I’ll miss his friendship and seeing him rolling a joint with his Van Nelle tobacco.
AUTUMN DURALD ARKAPAW, CINEMATOGRAPHER, BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER (2022)
Paris, Texas (1984), dir. Wim Wenders, cinematography by Robby Müller.
Robby Muller has always represented the type of photographer who I felt excels at completely immersing the audience in his distinctive view of the human experience; his particular view of that space, of that actor’s face, of that blue hour after sunset. I could feel his heart, soul, and energy in the framing and lighting, never a heavy hand burdening me with technique. I felt set free by someone who was in the moment, capturing the beauty of being human. Robby’s work inspired me to have an open eye, open mind, and to constantly be alive and emotional when capturing images. His images are visceral and continue to transport audiences into another world. That is never easy for a filmmaker to do, only the best give us that gift.
HOYTE VAN HOYTEMA, CINEMATOGRAPHER, OPPENHEIMER (2023)
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), dir. William Friedkin, cinematography by Robby Müller.
Robby’s work has been a guiding light to me throughout my career. He knew like no other how to mysteriously supercharge his images with humanity, doubt, and love, while staying unfazed by all the technology and white noise. Raw, effortless, warm, and with a beating heart. I find that the hardest part of the job: it’s a career-long assignment to wrangle endless technology and complex dynamics, to find a simple and intuitive connection that speaks the language of the soul. With Robbie, this felt as effortless as a musician playing an instrument.
AGNÈS GODARD, CINEMATOGRAPHER, BEAU TRAVAIL (1999) AND CAMERA ASSISTANT ON PARIS, TEXAS (1984)
Robbie Müller on the set of Paris, Texas (1984), courtesy of Agnès Godard.
Robby, a Golden Eye.
I met Robby in 1983.
It was a privilege to work with him, the possibility, watching him, to harvest what it could be like to be a cinematographer.
Nothing spectacular, rather simplicity, fluidity, hiding behind, of course, a huge knowledge.
Slowly it became obvious those qualities were fitting exactly his images, his PUREST images.
Robby is a master because there is no obstacle between his images and the audience.
Viewing his images and shots, you feel you are in sync with his vision, as if it were your own.
A perfect alchemy in a poetic and technical gesture.
I think of him dancing in the stars.
SHABIER KIRCHNER, CINEMATOGRAPHER, PAST LIVES (2023)
Alice in the Cities (1974), dir. Wim Wenders, cinematography by Robby Müller.
I was around fifteen when I first learned about Robby through a Dutch commercial director who came to Antigua to do a workshop at my school. He explained to me what a cinematographer did, and that if I wanted to see the work of a real master I should check out Robby Müller. He also told me that Robby was from the Caribbean, so before ever seeing his work I was already fascinated by him. About a year later I finally got my hands on Paris, Texas (1984) and it truly changed me. I thought, “If someone also born in the Caribbean can create images that look this beautiful and effortless then maybe I can too.” His work cemented my desire to become a cinematographer. It wasn’t until a few years into my career that I realized just how technically difficult his exposures were! They still push me to this very day.
CHRISTOPHER PORTER, CINEMATOGRAPHER & GAFFER, DOWN BY LAW (1986)
Down by Law (1986), dir. Jim Jarmusch, cinematography by Robby Müller.
I first worked with Robby on Down by Law, running his lighting department. I learned more about light during that one film than in all my prior work. And I learned how cinema was an art form—well beyond a commodity, well beyond entertainment. He was a marvel to work with and I stayed with him for 14 films. Robby was an artist, a magician, a perfectionist, and a teacher. He was my mentor, in the true sense of the word. I have always known how blessed I am to have worked alongside this man. Robby changed the course of my life.
We were in Chicago on a big movie and the producer said, “It’s almost lunch, Robby. Come on, that looks good enough.” Robby looked like he’d been punched in the stomach. Good enough? Robby told me that if the finest DPs in the world couldn’t figure out how we made a shot or a scene, he’d be happy.
Robby worked with skill and he worked with his heart. He served the story, never his ego. I knew I couldn’t fit this into 150 words. I have a thousand stories I could tell. I miss you, Mr. Müller.
SEAN PRICE WILLIAMS, director & CINEMATOGRAPHER, the sweet east (2023)
Barfly (1981), dir. Barbet Schroeder, cinematography by Robby Müller.
I never met this man. I never saw him speak before a movie, and I have read so few interviews. Most of the anecdotes I am familiar with are connected to him as a person, as an artist. For example, every time I settle into a hotel room for a job, I am reminded how Robby would instantly move the furniture and lights to create a tolerable space. It’s difficult now as most of the lighting is built into walls and furniture…
For sure, Robby has signature framing, and his camera movement is immediately identifiable when he worked with certain directors. But I usually find that conversations about Robby’s work do not assist in understanding his style. To me, he’s sort of the ultimate student filmmaker; I feel he is always searching and reaching and playing. His filmography draws a thrilling zigzag between studio and independent films: his mid-career shows some movement toward larger budgets but is constantly peppered with the smaller films he is now more associated with—a great way to stay fresh and not fall into conventional decision-making. His collaborations with well-established American directors on smaller films usually resulted in creating arguably their best films.
For me, that’s what makes him so vital and inspirational. There isn’t some great mystery of how. He was deliberate but, of course, also elegant. The camerawork, lighting, and attitude in They All Laughed illustrates exactly everything I love most about a Robby Müller film.