- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2006

The career of the esteemed Swedish-born cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who died Tuesday at age 85, was not confined to collaborations with a famous compatriot, writer-director Ingmar Bergman. Nevertheless, his reputation will always be linked with Mr. Bergman’s because their artistic partnership endured for a generation and accounted for several classics of modern European filmmaking.

Their association on 22 movies began in 1953, when Mr. Bergman’s regular cameraman, Gunnar Fischer, was unavailable for a project, and continued until 1983. Mr. Nykvist was the lighting cameraman and principal camera operator on all the Bergman features from “The Virgin Spring” through “Fanny and Alexander,” the director’s official valedictory.

Two Academy Awards for best cinematography derived from the Bergman partnership: “Cries and Whispers” in 1972 and “Fanny and Alexander” a decade later. When Mr. Nykvist was named the first foreign-born recipient of an annual Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers — he was the ninth recipient, in 1995 — the Bergman partnership also was emphasized.

At the outset, Mr. Nykvist seemed to intensify Mr. Bergman’s bleakest preoccupations in black and white, notably in a cycle of character studies fixated on emotional distress or desolation: “Through a Glass Darkly,” “Winter Light,” “The Silence,” “Persona,” “Shame,” “The Hour of the Wolf.” Mr. Nykvist also was on hand for a welcome adaptation to nuanced color cinematography, realized brilliantly in “Cries and Whispers” after three false starts. By the time cameraman and director reached an epic consummation in “Fanny and Alexander,” which ran more than 300 minutes in its four-part original version for Swedish television, they seemed to be in command of every evocative impression from the warm and sumptuous to the icy and sinister.

American moviegoers with only a hazy sense of Bergman-Nykvist pictorial virtuosity probably have absorbed more of the cinematographer’s skill than they realize. He shot about 120 features and more or less paved the way for European cameramen recruited to Hollywood since the 1970s. His English-language credits include Louis Malle’s “Pretty Baby,” Alan J. Pakula’s “Starting Over,” Bob Rafelson’s remake of “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” Bob Fosse’s “Star ‘80,” Philip Kaufman’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Woody Allen’s “New York Stories” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” Nora Ephron’s “Sleepless in Seattle” and Norman Jewison’s “Only You.”

Four years younger than Mr. Bergman, Mr. Nykvist was also the son of a clergyman. In fact, he barely knew his parents until he was 13 because they were medical missionaries in the Belgian Congo and he remained in Sweden with relatives. He went straight to the camera when pursuing a profession; after enrolling in a photography academy in Stockholm, he was hired at one of the film studios soon after graduating in 1941.

Interviewed for the American Film Institute’s compilation documentary “Visions of Light” in 1992, Mr. Nykvist recalled that Gregg Toland’s cinematography for John Ford’s “The Long Voyage Home,” released in 1940, made the greatest single impression upon him while he was an aspiring cameraman.

Assigned his own crew at age 23, Mr. Nykvist shot everything from nature documentaries to potboilers. He retraced his parents’ steps to Africa for a couple of projects, including a documentary about Albert Schweitzer.

A Sven Nykvist retrospective that retrieved his pre-Bergman filmography probably would reveal a great deal we don’t know about the Swedish movie industry. By the time Mr. Nykvist became a trusted collaborator, Ingmar Bergman was an international filmmaking celebrity. They seem to have hit it off promptly, and some aspects of the partnership can be glimpsed in a featurette about the production of “Fanny and Alexander,” incorporated in a five-disc DVD edition from the Criterion Collection.

They were united in a desire to keep the production process simple and efficient. Mr. Bergman preferred small crews and acting ensembles. Typically, there were two men on a camera crew: The cinematographer handled lighting and operating; the focus puller doubled as the unit’s still photographer.

Natural light, preferably from a single source, and powerfully concentrated imagery were essential to the Bergman system of illusion and to budget constraints. Intimacy and theatrical monologues prevailed in many scenes. Director and cameraman believed in meticulous planning, especially detailed observation of light variations in real settings meant to be replicated on-screen, such as the church in “Winter Light” or the home in “Cries and Whispers.”

The partners tended to echo each other’s commentary. “Every picture defines its own look,” Mr. Nykvist once said, “and that definition begins with the director’s intentions for the script … I have Ingmar Bergman to thank for letting me experiment with a kind of cinematography that utilizes true light where possible. … He was intensely interested in light and how it can be applied to create a given atmosphere.”

Mr. Bergman reflected in turn: “Very often it’s the people who know nothing or very little who use the most elaborate technical apparatus. … All Sven Nykvist needs to work is three lamps and a little grease-proof paper. … The images can never be attributed to just one of us. The impulse comes from me, and the enormously careful, subtle and technically clever execution is all Sven Nykvist.”

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