September 21, 2006
Sven Nykvist, 83, a Master of Light in Films, Dies
Sven Nykvist, one of the world’s foremost cinematographers, whose poetic use of light illuminated many of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest films, died yesterday in Sweden after a long illness.
He was 83 and was living at a nursing home where he was being treated for aphasia, a symptom of dementia, said his son, Carl-Gustaf Nykvist.
Mr. Nykvist, who won two Academy Awards for best cinematography with the Bergman films “Cries and Whispers” (1972) and “Fanny and Alexander” (1982) and an Oscar nomination for best cinematography for “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (1988), pioneered the expressive use of naturalistic light in filmmaking.
“I was fortunate to work with Ingmar,” he said in 1995. “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.”
In his films, especially those with Mr. Bergman, light assumed a metaphysical dimension that went beyond mood. It distilled and deepened the feelings of torment and spiritual separation that afflicted Bergman characters. But in scenes of tranquillity filmed outdoors, the light might also evoke glimpses of transcendence. The sumptuous scenes of a Scandinavian Christmas in “Fanny and Alexander” burst with warmth and a magical, childlike joy.
Like Mr. Bergman, Mr. Nykvist, who was born Sven Vilhem Nykvist in Moheda, Sweden, in 1922, was a minister’s son. His parents were Lutheran missionaries in the Belgian Congo, and in their absence, he was brought up by strict relatives. But from the age of 10, when his parents returned from Africa, he lived with them on the outskirts of Stockholm.
Although he was seldom allowed to go to the movies, he was fascinated by his father’s large collection of slides and photos taken in Africa. At 15 he bought his first eight-millimeter camera, and in 1941, he got his first job in the movies, as an assistant cameraman. He made his debut as a principal cinematographer in 1945 and over the next decade filmed 30 features with various Swedish directors. In 1952, Mr. Nykvist was the co-director and co-cinematographer of “Under the Southern Cross,” a film produced in the Belgian Congo, based on his parents’ experience with a witch doctor. He also made a documentary about Albert Schweitzer in Africa.
He was 30 and Mr. Bergman 34 when Mr. Nykvist was called in to shoot the interiors of the Bergman film “Sawdust and Tinsel” (released in the United States as “The Naked Night”) in 1953. The director, though impressed, continued working with his regular cinematographer, Gunnar Fischer, for several more years, until “The Virgin Spring” in 1960, after which Mr. Nykvist remained Mr. Bergman’s cinematographer of choice.
“Through a Glass Darkly,” “Winter Light,” “The Silence,” “Persona,” “Hour of the Wolf,” “Cries and Whispers,” “Scenes From a Marriage” and “Fanny and Alexander” are among the masterpieces that followed, in which Mr. Nykvist became the director’s second pair of eyes.
“Winter Light,” Mr. Nykvist later said, was one of the first films in which he deliberately set out to explore the expressive qualities of light. Its visual atmosphere was inspired by his experience of sitting with the director in a church all day and studying the play of light on the walls and windows.
After winning an Oscar for “Cries and Whispers,” Mr. Nykvist found himself increasingly in demand outside Sweden. Among the directors with whom he collaborated were Louis Malle (“Pretty Baby”), Philip Kaufman (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being”), Bob Fosse (“Star 80”), Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle”), Woody Allen (“Another Woman,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Celebrity”), Richard Attenborough (“Chaplin”) and his fellow Swede Lasse Hallstrom (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”). He became the first European cinematographer accepted into the American Society of Cinematographers.
During the 1990’s, Mr. Nykvist was also the cameraman for the directorial debuts of Swedish actors and Bergman regulars Erland Josephson and Max von Sydow. And in 1991, he directed his own feature film, “Oxen,” starring Mr. von Sydow and Liv Ullmann, which was nominated for best foreign language film in 1992.
His wife, Ulrika, died in 1982. In addition to his son, he is survived by his daughter-in-law, Helen Berlin, and two grandchildren.
He retired after his aphasia was diagnosed in 1998, having worked on more than 120 films. His final one was “Curtain Call” in 1999. The next year, Carl-Gustaf Nykvist made a documentary about his father, “Light Keeps Me Company.”