When cinema audiences think of the desolate grandeur of Wim Wenders’s existential road movies or the stark, corroded aesthetic of Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan comedies, they are usually calling to mind images from the work of the Dutch cinematographer who helped shape those film-makers’ visions: Robby Müller.
Müller had an unorthodox preference for the medium shot and long take over the close-up and the rapid-fire cut; this, along with his flexibility and his attentive and unusual use of light, earned the admiration of directors including Lars von Trier, Raul Ruíz, Sally Potter, Steve McQueen and Michael Winterbottom. The most apparently unpromising locations grew magical through his lens. The high-contrast monochrome in Jarmusch’s New Orleans-set Down By Law (1986), the first of their four features together, provided a sense of definition which sometimes eluded the characters themselves.
It was with Wenders, though, that he cut his teeth and made his mark. “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,” said the director. They worked on and off for more than 25 years on features that filtered the mythology of American culture, its rock’n’roll, its fashion and its violence, through a prism of European alienation.
It was his outsider’s eye which made him such an insightful chronicler of American life in films such as the scuzzy punk comedy Repo Man (1984), directed by another outsider, Alex Cox, who exclaimed: “The mise en scène is Robby Müller! He had these opinions at the time – he didn’t like to move the camera unless it was necessary, he preferred medium shots to close-ups, he liked to play things in master shots if it was possible, and I just went along with Robby’s aesthetic.”
Müller never lost his appetite for innovation, whether shooting the musical numbers of Von Trier’s Palme d’Or-winning Dancer in the Dark (2000) with 100 stationary digital cameras or roaming around Manchester on the hoof for 24 Hour Party People (2002), Winterbottom’s recreation of the city’s music scene over three decades. In 2016, he was honoured with an exhibition at the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, which argued for him to be accorded the same status as any director.