Sven Nykvist

Cinematographer who won two Oscars during a 30-year working relationship with Ingmar Bergman
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The Independent Online

Sven Vilhem Nykvist, cinematographer: born Moheda, Sweden 3 December 1922; married 1952 Ulla Söderlind (died 1982; one son, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1968); died 20 September 2006.

Acknowledged as one of the greatest of cinematographers, Sven Nykvist was particularly associated with the director Ingmar Bergman Over 30 years they made 20 films together, several of them regarded as screen masterpieces. Twice an Oscar-winner, Nykvist also photographed films by such directors as Louis Malle, Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. After Ingmar Bergman retired from film-making, he said of Nykvist,

Our feeling for light was the same. If, on any occasion, I happen to miss working within my profession as a film director, it's not the directing, it's the wonderful experience of working with Sven.

Considered one of Sweden's three most important cameramen (along with the master of silent cinema, Julius Jaenzon, and the man who preceded Nykvist as Bergman's photographer, Gunnar Fischer), he was born Sven Vilhem Nykvist in 1922 in the Swedish province of Småland. His parents, Natanael and Gerda Nykvist, were missionaries who would spend four years out of every five in the Belgian Congo, leaving Sven in a home for missionaries' children. His upbringing was strict, and movies were thought "sinful", so he was allowed only a limited time to seek escape at the cinema, in which he was passionately interested from an early age.

Dropping out of college to look for work in the film industry, he studied at the Stockholm Municipal School for Photographers, and in 1941, aged 19, found work as an assistant cameraman with the film production company Sandrews (later to produce many of Bergman's films) where he served as an apprentice to the great Julius Jaenzon, a virtuoso of the lens who had filmed many of the silent masterworks of Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström.

Elements of German expressionism would later surface in some of Nykvist's work, including the first Bergman film on which he worked, the baroque circus melodrama Gycklarnas afton (Sawdust and Tinsel, 1953). After spending over a year working as a focus puller at the Cinecittà studios in Rome, Nykvist returned to Sandrews to shoot his first film as a cinematographer, Rolf Husberg's Barnen från Frostmofjället (The Children, 1945), after which he worked on both features and documentaries, the latter including an impressive documentary on Albert Schweitzer, which he also co-wrote and co-directed.

In 1960, after photographing Bergman's Jungfrukällan (The Virgin Spring), a stark medieval tragedy that won the Oscar as best foreign film, he succeeded Gunnar Fischer as the director's regular cameraman, and soon his name was almost as well known as Bergman's.

Both men were fascinated by the possibilities of lighting, and Nykvist was able to meet Bergman's requirements for bold lighting, with composition and camera movement that would match the psychological mood of each film. "I learned that there are types of lighting that you can use to create an ambience," said Nykvist:

I was fortunate to work with Ingmar, particularly at that early stage of my career. One of the things we believed was that a picture shouldn't look lit. Whenever possible, I lit with one source, and avoided creating double shadows, because that pointed to the photography.

Both considered the face and eyes of their performers of prime importance. "The film camera is an incredible instrument for registering the human soul as reflected in the human face," said Bergman. "Sven had a deep, intuitive feeling for the human face." Nykvist said,

The truth always lies in the character's eyes. It is very important to light so the audience can see what's behind each character's eyes.

Nykvist found that in this respect it was helpful that Bergman tended to work with a small repertory of players, primarily Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Max von Sydow, Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin and Erland Josephson:

When I was working with Ingmar and Liv Ullmann, there were a few other actors who were always in his films. I can see it looking back on those movies now. I knew everything about photographing them. I learned to know their faces.

Nykvist won Oscars for his work on two Bergman films, the beautiful but harrowing Viskningar och rop (Cries and Whispers, 1972) and the director's most optimistic work, Fanny och Alexander (Fanny and Alexander, 1983), its enchanting evocation of childhood caught in glowing images by Nykvist. He was nominated for a third Oscar for Philip Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988).

Though all three of his nominated films were in colour, Nykvist's work in black-and-white was perhaps even more extraordinary, his intense close-ups of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in Bergman's Persona (1966) described by one critic as setting "a new standard in modernist film-making". He was to accomplish a similar intensity and poetic use of close-up, this time in colour, on another film that was virtually a chamberwork for two females, Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata, 1978), the actress Ingrid Bergman's first Swedish film in almost 40 years, and the last feature film she made before her death.

For Vargtimmen (The Hour of the Wolf, 1967), filmed on the island of Faro, where Ingmar Bergman lived, Nykvist used the eerier aspects of the island's landscapes to reflect the leading character's descent into madness, but gave an appropriately brighter look to a delightful sequence in which puppets perform an extract from The Magic Flute. (In 1975 Nykvist was to photograph Bergman's fetching version of the complete Mozart opera.)

One of Nykvist's most striking movies was Aus dem Leben der Marionetten (From the Life of the Marionettes, 1980), made by Bergman in Germany while in self-imposed exile from Sweden after accusations of tax evasion (he was later cleared). This tale of a young businessman with marital problems who murders a prostitute started with the murder, filmed in a blood-red room, after which the rest of the film was shot in bleak monochrome, its dream sequences given an intense whiteness. "A film doesn't have to look absolutely realistic," Nykvist said:

It can be beautiful and realistic at the same time. I am not interested in beautiful photography. I am interested in telling stories about human beings, how they act and why they act that way.

Other important Bergman works photographed by Nykvist included Såsom i en spegel (Through a Glass Darkly, 1961), the first part of an uncompromising trilogy dealing with God's alienation from man, embracing Nattvardsgåsterna (Winter Light, 1962) and Tystnaden (The Silence, 1963), plus Skammen (The Shame, 1968), En Passion (The Passion, 1969), and Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes from a Marriage, 1973, made for television).

Nykvist co-directed one feature film, Gorilla (1956), and was solo director of two others, Lianbron (1965) and Oxen (The Ox, 1981), as well as several documentaries. He also photographed movies for other European and American directors, including Louis Malle's Black Moon (1975) and Pretty Baby (1978), Roman Polanski's Le Locataire (The Tenant, 1976), Bob Rafelson's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), Volker Schlöndorff's Un amour de Swann (Swann in Love, 1984), Richard Attenborough's Chaplin (1992), Nora Ephron's Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and Lasse Hallström's What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993).

Among the film-makers who have cited Nykvist as a crucial influence on their work are the cameramen László Kovács and Vilmos Zsigmond, and the directors Jan Troell and Woody Allen. Nykvist photographed two films for Allen, Another Woman (1988) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), but he confessed that because he had an affair with Mia Farrow he subsequently found it difficult working with Allen when he saw the two of them together. (Nykvist was married in 1952, and had two sons, but the marriage ended in 1968. Later one of his sons committed suicide.)

In 1986 he was honoured with a Best Artistic Contribution prize at Cannes for his work on Andrei Tarkovsky's Offret (The Sacrifice), and in 1996 he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers - the first non-American to receive the honour.

Nykvist's work became appreciated especially for the clean simplicity of his lighting and set-ups, eschewing flamboyant shots that call attention to themselves. When asked to describe his lighting methods, he replied,

It is difficult to put into words because film is a visual language. That's the role I play as cinematographer in understanding the script and the director's intentions, and translating it into images that express the ideas.

His last film was Peter Yates's Curtain Call (1999), a flat romantic fantasy which failed to get a cinema release despite the efforts of such stars as Maggie Smith, Michael Caine and Marcia Gay Harden. On his previous film, Enskilda samtal (Private Conversations, 1998), directed by Liv Ullmann, friends and co-workers noticed that he was slurring words, tiring easily and becoming frustrated at an inability to express himself. It transpired he had progressive aphasia, an incurable form of dementia.

Ironically, his private life bore similarities to a Bergman script - authoritarian upbringing, religious fanatic parents, a failed marriage, a son who committed suicide - events that doubtless made him sympathetic to the bleak world view of Bergman.

His surviving son, Carl-Gustav Nykvist, is a director, who made his first film, Kvinnorna på taket (The Women on the Roof) in 1989. In 2001 he made a feature-length documentary, Ljuset håller mig sällskap (Light Keeps Me Company), celebrating his father's life and career, and his remarkable partnership with Ingmar Bergman.

Bibi Andersson reminisced recently,

Imagine those two coming up and pointing the camera towards you. They were so concentrated on who you were to become. The air was charged! One of them used words and looks. The other, using his hands, viewed you, telling you how to move. They were a very good duo, those two.

Ingrid Thulin recalled how she once said to the pair,

When you two get old it'll be like this: you'll be allowed your camera but without any film in it. And I'll ring Liv, Harriet and Bibi and some of the others and I'll say to them, "Sven and Ingmar can't stop filming. Couldn't you come over and stand in front of the camera? There's no film in it, but they can get on with their fun." We laughed a lot at that. It sounded like such a pleasant future. But it was not to be.

Tom Vallance

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