Cinematographer with a preference for natural light who acted as midwife to Bergman masterpieces
Friday September 22, 2006
Someone once said that in the process of film-making "if the film is the baby, the director the mother, the screenwriter the father, then the cinematographer is the midwife." The Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who has died aged 83, helped bring about the birth of a number of masterpieces, most of them with Ingmar Bergman, his most intimate collaborator.
This empathetic relationship grew from the fact that both Swedes were the sons of strict pastors who forbade the watching of films, both had unhappy childhoods, and both recalled an early fascination with lighting. Nykvist rarely saw his parents until he was aged 13. They were Christian missionaries in Africa, who left him at home in Sweden to be brought up by relatives.
The cinematic vision could be said to have come from their experiences of Sweden's dark winters and bright summers. Nykvist and Bergman shared a preference for location shooting and natural light. They also agreed that subtle changes of light can alter the meaning of a character's actions. As Bergman said in the documentary Light Keeps Me Company, directed by Carl-Gustav Nykvist, the cinematographer's son, "Sven and I saw things alike, thought things alike, our feeling for light was the same. We had the same basic moral positions about camera placement."
However, they only really discovered each other in 1960 after Bergman had become one of the world's leading directors, though Nykvist had co-shot the expressionistic Sawdust and Tinsel seven years previously. It was Gunnar Fischer's camera which could be said to have created the "look" of Bergman's films. He favoured cold, bleak lighting, often harshly overexposed, and dramatic photographic contrasts.
Fischer and Bergman parted company after The Devil's Eye (1960), when the director failed to persuade the cinematographer to soften his lighting techniques. Thus began the Bergman-Nykvist era, the most mature and fruitful of both their careers. Incidentally, Nykvist had started off in films wanting to emulate Fischer, 12 years his senior.
Nykvist studied photography, and spent a year at Cinecitta in Rome, before joining the Swedish production company Sandrews in 1941 as assistant director of photography. He first gained attention for his work on Barabbas (1953) and Karin Mansdotter (1954) with Alf Sjoberg, Sweden's most important post-war director before the advent of Bergman.
The fruitful partnership with Bergman began with The Virgin Spring (1960), which preceded the sombre trilogy: Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light and The Silence (both 1963), all of which revealed Nykvist's reliance on natural light, soft bounce lighting and geometrically precise shot compositions. "When Ingmar and I made Winter Light, which takes place in a church on a winter day in Sweden, we decided we should not see any shadow in it at all because there would be no logical shadow in that setting.
"We sat for weeks in a church in north Sweden, looking at the light during the three hours between 11 and two o'clock. We saw that it changed a lot, and it helped him in writing the script because he always writes the moods. I asked the production designer to build a ceiling in the church so I wouldn't have any possibility of putting up lights or backlighting. I had to start with bounced light and then after that I think I made every picture with bounced light. I really feel ill when I see a direct light coming into faces with its big nose shadow."
For many years, Nykvist and Bergman resisted colour, considering it a source of superficial beauty. In 1964, Bergman, responded to the critical reaction to his "morbid" films by making a farce, All These Women, in colour to bring out the prettiness of the ornate sets and flamboyant 1920s costumes. But neither man was satisfied with the result, citing its lack of atmosphere and excessive lighting. Seeing it, nobody would have suspected that Nykvist was to become one of the great masters of colour cinematography.
In the meantime, it was back to stunning black-and-white with the powerful close-ups in Persona (1966) and the haunting images of Hour of the Wolf (1967), before embarking on their second colour film, A Passion (1969), which used more muted tones.
But it was with Cries and Whispers (1972), for which Nykvist won an Academy Award, that the real breakthrough came. It is a film of reds, punctuated with red dissolves rather than the usual dark fades. Opening with crepuscular light in the garden of a country mansion, the film moves inside the house dominated by its red upholstery, red walls and furnishings, setting off the white gowns of three sisters, one of whom lies dying. After her death the white motif shifts to black, and the final flashback is diffused with autumnal colours, all of which makes the film psychologically meaningful in a visual manner.
Nykvist lit the sets and worked the camera himself. Scenes of a Marriage (1974), shot with only one camera held by Nykvist, included 10-minute takes with as many as 20 zooms per take, plus complex camera movements. "When you are operating the camera, you forget all about the other people around you. You just see this little scene and you live in that and you feel it. For me, operating the camera is a sport and it helps me do better lighting. I prefer to shoot on location because in the studio you have too many possibilities, too many lights to destroy your whole picture."
In the 1970s, Nykvist took advantage of the easing of union regulations in the US, which allowed Europeans to work in the film industry, so by the mid-80s he was filming more in Hollywood than elsewhere. He shot four films for Bergman-lover Woody Allen, the best being Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), although Nykvist was unhappy with Allen's need for a dark look. As Nykvist exclaimed, "The actors' faces look like tomatoes!" Other American films were Louis Malle's Pretty Baby (1978), Bob Rafelson's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), Phil Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) and fellow Swede Lasse Hallstrom's What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993).
However, it was in Europe, where he was not forced to employ a camera operator, that his best work was done, for example on Andrei Tarkovsky's final film, The Sacrifice (1986), with its brilliant climax - an unbroken 10-minute take of a burning house seen from a distantly placed camera. And, of course, with Bergman on the radiant Fanny and Alexander (1982), for which he won a second Oscar. In 1991 he photographed The Ox, a gloomy tale with Max von Sydow, Bergman's favourite actor.
In 1997, during the filming of Woody Allen's Celebrity, Nykvist was diagnosed with having progressive aphasia, a rare brain disease that causes words to become mixed up and eventually leads to complete loss of speech. With his condition worsening, he was forced to retire, an irony for someone who spent his career communicating visually rather than verbally. The warm-hearted Nykvist, with his handsome Viking appearance, whose favourite novel was Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, commented in the 1990s, "It has taken me 30 years to come to simplicity.
"Earlier, I made a lot of what I thought were beautiful shots with much backlighting and many effects, absolutely none of which were motivated by anything in the film at all. As soon as we had a painting on the wall, we thought it should have a glow around it. It was terrible and I can hardly stand to see my own films on television anymore. I look for two minutes and then I thank God that there is a word called simplicity."
Ulrika, Nykvist's wife, died in 1982. He is survived by his son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.
• Sven Nykvist, cinematographer, born December 3 1922; died September 20 2006
If film is the process of painting in light, then Sven Nykvist was the medium's Rembrandt. Renowned for his long-term collaboration with Ingmar Bergman, he brought a stark, natural beauty to Persona and The Silence, swaddled Cries and Whispers in a crimson opulence and in Fanny and Alexander glided gracefully between a lavish family home, the spartan cell of an oppressive bishop and the exotic decadence of a puppet shop.
But Nykvist was not Bergman's painter alone. He worked with directors as diverse as Woody Allen and Andrei Tarkovsky, caught the claustrophic mood of Polanski's The Tenant and bathed Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp in honeyed light in 1993's What's Eating Gilbert Grape.
The world is that little bit darker without him.