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Sven Nykvist's Camera Knows Language of Film

April 30, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The other evening, as part of AFI Fest and of New Sweden 88, which is celebrating the 350th anniversary of the first Swedish settlements in America, I shared the podium with the great cinematographer Sven Nykvist.

There were clips from Ingmar Bergman's "Cries and Whispers" and "Fanny and Alexander" (both Oscar-winning achievements for Nykvist) and from "Pretty Baby," the remake of "The Postman Always Rings Twice," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and the late Andrei Tarkovsky's "Sacrifice."

Watching these always beautiful and often astonishing images, you realized all over again how subtle and varied the arts of cinematography have become and how central they are to the whole language of film.

The trim and uniform lighting of an earlier day, with the Rembrandt-like highlights on heads and faces, the beautiful play of light and shadow (occasionally with two shadows for the price of one), the light from a kind of omniscient source, is gone.

"I've spent 35 or 40 years learning one word--simplicity," said Nykvist, who is modest to a fault. The aim is naturalism: the sense that the light you see is all there was and that the camera was simply recording the reality.

The remarkable images of "Cries and Whispers," two sisters and a loving maid hurrying with a lamp through the night-dark corridors of a vast house, seem to push at the limits of film (and did). Nykvist achieved the illumination largely with candles and kerosene lamps.

The effect is not so much to underscore as to create the atmosphere of pain and foreboding as a third sister lies dying of cancer.

A subsequent scene on the lawn, with the three sisters in their white, turn-of-the-century summer dresses, is by contrast suffused with a golden, autumnal shadowless light, beautiful and serene. It is an imaginary moment, an image of the tranquillity beyond death, relieving and reassuring after the agonies of the last night.

Nykvist's camera in this scene is not the urgent reporter of the dying but a calm and kindly observer, like a family friend pleased to see everyone so happy. (Hardly anyone, living or dead, has been happy in "Cries and Whispers.")

Nykvist remembered that the new feelings about light began for him and Bergman with "Winter Light," released in 1963. Before they began, they sat all day in a small church in northern Sweden, watching the play of light on the walls and the fixtures.

When a church set was later built in the studio at Stockholm, Nykvist was able to suggest the changing light from morning until dusk, even a brief moment (when two characters meet) when you can tell the sunlight has broken through the overcast outside.

Like Bergman, Nykvist is a minister's son. His parents were both African missionaries who were there for long periods when he was a boy, leaving him to be raised at home in Sweden by strict relatives.

Nykvist's fascination for movies may have been the greater because he was so seldom allowed to see them. But another strong career push was the fact that his father was an enthusiastic photographer who gave illustrated lectures about his work in Africa.

"He would make his photographs--he took 3,000 of them--into slides and assemble them and invite my two brothers and me to see them. My brothers would sneak away when the lights went out but I always stayed."

After military service Nykvist became a focus-puller and, at 22, got his first chance to photograph a film when a cinematographer fell ill. His career almost ended on his first day when, following the director's guidance, he underexposed all the film so severely that the only image to be seen was the glimpsed rectangle of a window.

"But the director, who had begun as a cinematographer, admitted the mistake was his. We reshot everything the next day and it was fine."

Nykvist's work with Bergman began with "Sawdust and Tinsel" (called "The Naked Night" here), which was released in 1953. The senior cinematographer Nykvist had been going to assist on the film was sent off to Hollywood to learn about Cinemascope. As Nykvist remembers it, Bergman was not pleased to be stuck with the junior cameraman (Bergman was 34, Nykvist 30).

They had a long staring contest in a makeup room at 5 in the morning on the first day of shooting. Nykvist expected a warning of sudden dismissal if he goofed and Bergman evidently expected to give it. But after long silence, Bergman merely said, "If you mess up, we reshoot," and they worked happily through "The Naked Night" and 21 subsequent films.

Bergman's great, last masterpiece (Nykvist is sure he will make no more features) is "Fanny and Alexander," which, with everything else it is, is a whole textbook on the uses of camera and film.

A joyous Christmas dinner--family servants dancing through a large and richly appointed apartment--is a bright, candlelit ode to happiness.

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