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Although Sven Nykvist, who died last year, worked with directors as renowned as Louis Malle, Woody Allen, and Andrei Tarkovsky, for all the world he’s known as “Ingmar Bergman’s cameraman.”
The son of two missionaries based in the Belgian Congo, Nykvist was left in the care of relatives in Sweden who considered movies sinful; as a boy he had to sneak off to theaters to see films. He entered the Swedish film industry as a focus puller in 1941. The turning point of his career came in 1953 when Bergman and his longtime director of photography Gunnar Fischer parted company over conflicts during production of The Naked Night and Nykvist was taken on to shoot the interiors. From 1959 on, they worked together regularly and Nykvist became a major personality on the Bergman team, largely responsible for the distinctive look of films made during the major phase of the director’s career. They worked on 22 films together, and Nykvist became Bergman’s second pair of eyes.
It was through his interaction with Bergman during the making of the director’s trilogy about faith and redemption—Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963)—that Nykvist abandoned his technique of making “beautiful shots.” He noted in an interview: “In the past I’ve put grease on the lens, used all sorts of filters, played tricks in the lab. But after 30 years of work I’ve come back to simplicity in lighting and framing. Bergman has taught me this: Always bring out the emotional truth in a scene and take out everything that is there just for effect or beauty.”
This austerity is at the heart of The Silence, the single Bergman title on view in MOMA’s three-film homage, “Sven Nykvist Remembered.” One of the most symbolic of the director’s films, a bleak study of loneliness and obsessive desire, it’s filled with starkly indelible images. Two sisters involved in a tense love-hate relationship (Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom, both remarkable) travel to an unspecified country, apparently on the brink of war, where they end up in a city filled with people with whom they can’t communicate and, more specifically, in a sprawling, empty hotel. Nykvist’s camera prowls down the hotel corridors, often encountering unexpected visions. The entire film is structured like a long, uninterrupted dream.
An awestruck admirer of Bergman and Nykvist, Woody Allen worked with the cinematographer on four films. In Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Allen tackles life, death, God, and a number of other Bergmanian issues in an angst-ridden dramatic comedy of manners that plays like a thriller. Visually, it’s a warm film, and Nykvist’s camera style conjures up striking, painterly shots. In a memorable scene, the adulterous eye surgeon brilliantly played by Martin Landau is seated in a darkened room contemplating murder while a storm rages outside, its intermittent lightning flashes illuminating the doctor’s troubled face.
The rarity of the series is An-Magritt (1969), the last film of Norway’s major director of the postwar period, Arne Skouen. Liv Ullmann stars as a free-spirited and ambitious woman in a male-dominated rural mining community. While no undiscovered
masterpiece, it’s a showcase for the talent of one of the most impressive European
actresses of her generation in full command of her powers—captured by a cinematographer in full command of his own.