Nykvist, Sven

views updated May 23 2018


Cinematographer and Director. Nationality: Swedish. Born: Moheda, 3 December 1922. Family: Father of the director-writer Carl-Gustav Nykvist. Career: Assistant cameraman from early 1940s; 1945—first film as cinematographer; 1953—first of many films for Ingmar Bergman, The Naked Night; 1956—co-directed first film, Gorilla; 1996—cinematographer for TV mini-series Enskilda samtal.Awards: Best Cinematography Academy Award and National Society of Film Critics Best Cinematography Award, for Cries and Whispers, 1972; Jury Specialbagge Guldbagge Award, 1973; Best Cinematography Cesar Award, for Black Moon, 1975; Best Cinematography Academy Award, Best Cinematography British Academy Award, Best Cinematography British Society of Cinematographers, Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Cinematography, for Fanny and Alexander, 1982; Cannes Film Festival Best Artistic Contribution, for The Sacrifice, 1986; Best Cinematography Independent Spirit Award, for The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1988; Camerimage Lifetime Achievement Award, 1993; American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award, 1996; Camerimage Special Award (shared with Ingmar Bergman), 1998.

Films as Cinematographer:


The Poor Millionaire (asst)


Barnen från Frostmofjället (The Children of Frostmofjället) (Husberg) (asst); Gomorron Bill (Falk-Winner); Tretton stolar (Thirteen Chairs) (Larsson)


Saltstänk och krutgubbar (Bauman)


Maj på Malö (Bauman); Lata Lena och blåögda Per (Wallén)


Lång-Lasse i Delsbo (Johansson); Hin och smålänningen (co); Bohus bataljon (Cederstrand-Spjuth); Sjösalavår (Spring at Sjösala) (Wallén)


Loffe blir polis (Ahrle) (co)


Rågens rike (Johansson)


Under Södra Korset (Under the Southern Cross) (+ co-d, co-sc—doc); Nar syrenerna blommar (When Lilacs Blossom) (Johansson)


Barabbas (Sjöberg) (co); Vägen till Kolckrike (Skoglund); >Gycklarnas afton (The Naked Night; Sawdust and Tinsel) (Bergman) (co)


Salka Valka (Mattsson); Karin Mansdotter (Sjöberg); Storm over Tjurö (Mattsson)


Sista ringen (Skoglund); Den underbara lögnen (Road)


Gorilla (+ co-d); Nattbarn (Children of the Night) (Hellström); Flickan i frack (Girl in a Dressing Gown) (Mattsson); Blänande hav (Skoglund); Alskling på vågen (Bauman) (co); Ett kungligt äventyr (Birt); Den tappre soldaten Jönsson (Bergström)


En drömmares vandring (A Dreamer's Walk) (Lindgren); Gäst i eget hus (Olin); Synnöve Solbakken (Hellström)


Damen i svart (Lady in Black) (Mattsson); Laila—Liebe unter der Mitternachtssonne (Make Way for Lila) (Husberg)


Får jag låna din fru? (Mattsson)


Jungfrukällan (The Virgin Spring) (Bergman); Domaren (The Judge) (Sjöberg); De sista stegen (A Matter of Morals) (Cromwell)


Sasom i en spegel (Through a Glass Darkly) (Bergman)


Nattsvardsgästerna (Winter Light; The Communicants) (Bergman); Tystnaden (The Silence) (Bergman)


För att inte talla om all dessa kvinnor (All These Women; Now about All These Women) (Bergman); Att älska (To Love) (J. Donner); Alskande par (Loving Couples) (Zetterling)


Lianbron (The Vine Bridge) (+ d)


Persona (Bergman)


Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf) (Bergman); Skammen (The Shame) (Bergman)


Riten (The Ritual; The Rite) (Bergman); En passion (The Passion of Anna; Passion) (Bergman)


Erste Liebe (First Love) (Schell)


Beröringen (The Touch) (Bergman); The Last Run (Fleischer); One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Wrede)


Viskningar och rop (Cries and Whispers) (Bergman); Siddhartha (Rooks)


Scener ur ett äktenskap (Scenes from a Marriage) (Bergman)


The Dove (Jarrott); Ransom (The Terrorists) (Wrede); Trollflöjten (The Magic Flute) (Bergman)


Black Moon (Malle)


Ansikte not ansikte (Face to Face) (Bergman); Le Locataire (The Tenant) (Polanski)


Das Schlangenei (The Serpent's Egg) (Bergman)


En och en (One Plus One) (+ co-d); Pretty Baby (Malle); King of the Gypsies (Pierson); Herbstsonate (Autumn Sonata) (Bergman)


Hurricane (Troell); Starting Over (Pakula)


Willy and Phil (Mazursky); Aus dem Leben der Marionetten (From the Life of the Marionettes) (Bergman)


The Postman Always Rings Twice (Rafelson)


Fanny och Alexander (Fanny and Alexander) (Bergman); Cannery Row (Ward)


Un Amour de Swann (Swann in Love) (Schlondörff); La Tragédie de Carmen (The Tragedy of Carmen) (Brook); Star 80 (Fosse)


Efter Repetitioner (After the Rehearsal) (Bergman)


Agnes of God (Jewison)


Offret (The Sacrifice) (Tarkovsky)


The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Kaufman); Another Woman (W. Allen); Katinka (Vid Vgen; Ved Vejen) (von Sydow)


Crimes and Misdemeanors (W. Allen); "Oedipus Wrecks" ep. of New York Stories (W. Allen)


Buster's Bedroom (Horn)


Chaplin (Attenborough)


What's Eating Gilbert Grape (Hallström); Sleepless in Seattle (N. Ephron)


With Honors (Keshishian); Only You (Jewison); Mixed Nuts (N. Ephron)


Something to Talk About (Hallström); Kristin Lavransdotter (Ullmann)


Enskilda samtal (Private Conversation) (Ullmann—mini for TV)


Celebrity (Allen)


Curtain Call (Yates)

Other Films:


A Look at Liv (Kaplan) (doc) (ro as Himself)


The Ox (d, sc)


Visions of Light: The Art of the Cinematographer (Glassman, McCarthy, Samuels) (doc) (ro as Interviewee)


Lumiere et compagnie (Lumiere and Company) (various) (ro)


Liv Ullmann scener fra et liv (Hambro) (doc) (ro as Interviewee)


Ljuset haller mig sallskap (Light Keeps Me Company) (Carl-Gustav Nykvist) (doc) (ro as Interviewee)


By NYKVIST: articles—

"Photographing the Films of Ingmar Bergman," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), October 1962.

"A Passion for Light," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1972.

Chaplin (Stockholm), no. 5, 1973.

Deutsche Kameramann (Munich), September 1974.

On The Magic Flute in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), August 1975.

On Face to Face in Filmmakers Newsletter (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), May 1976.

Filmkritik (Munich), May 1976.

Millimeter (New York), July/August 1976.

On Cannery Row in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1981.

Millimeter (New York), May 1981.

On Location (Hollywood), November 1983.

American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1984.

Stills (London), June/July 1984.

Eyepiece (London), July/August 1984.

Positif (Paris), May 1986.

Positif (Paris), February 1988.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1989.

Film Comment (New York), September/October 1989.

Time Out (London), 7 April 1993.

On NYKVIST: articles—

Filmwoche, 8 July 1961.

Chaplin (Stockholm), December 1965.

Film in Sweden, no. 1, 1968.

Film World (Bombay), October/December 1968.

Focus on Film (London), Winter 1970; corrections in no. 13, 1973.

Eder, R., in New York Times, 7 April 1976.

Denby, D., in New York Times, 25 April 1976.

On From the Life of the Marionettes in Film (London), 15 November 1982.

Curtin, J., in New York Times, 12 June 1983.

Block, Bruce A., in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1984.

Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 385, June 1986.

Film Dope (Nottingham), July 1992.

Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 34, no. 6, 1992/1993.

Filmkultura (Budapest), July 1993.

Fisher, B., "ASC salutes Sven Nykvist," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), February 1996.

Edmunds, M., "A master lenser looks back," in Variety (New York), 17–23 February 1997.

Fujiwara, Chris, "Soulful Eye," in Boston Phoenix, 18–25 May 2000.

* * *

Sven Nykvist's color cinematography on the films of the director Ingmar Bergman has won him praise, awards—and endless imitators. Nykvist was the director of photography on all of Bergman's films and most of his television productions from The Virgin Spring through Fanny and Alexander and After the Rehearsal. So well does Nykvist's cinematography fit Bergman's later films that it is difficult to untangle their mutual influence on each other's work.

When he was part of Bergman's tightly knit 18-person crew, Nykvist's responsibilities included lighting and actually working the camera, as well as designing the cinematography for the production. This may account for the decline in quality (from superb down to excellent) when Nykvist works on American films, and must delegate part of his duties among the crew. Nevertheless, there is also clearly a symbiotic matching of tastes and temperaments between himself and Bergman that Nykvist has not shared with other directors. Both Swedes are the sons of pastors, both had difficult childhoods (Nykvist's parents were African missionaries, and left him at home in Sweden for much of his childhood), and both fondly recall an early fascination with the power of film and light over the imagination.

Nykvist's pioneering with natural light sources complements Bergman's penchant for location shooting and minimalist shot compositions ("two faces and a teacup"). While Nykvist builds upon the Swedish tradition of filmmaking in his style, he has brought the national tradition of stark psychological landscape into international favor with color cinematography that achieves iconographical beauty by eschewing the distracting prettiness generally associated with color film. Initially, Nykvist was reluctant to move from black and white to color because color's tendency to prettify subjects and emphasize detail made it difficult to show something as convincingly "ugly." When color became a commercial necessity, Nykvist and Bergman got off to a false start in Now about All These Woman, released in 1964, which made them run for cover back to black and white until they shot Passion in 1969. By ignoring much of the conventional wisdom about using color film, Nykvist finally managed to bring an iconographical style to Cries and Whispers, his fourth color film for Bergman.

Nykvist emphasizes that he strives for realism, but his use of the term is misleading. He portrays psychological truth rather than social realism, and his heavy reliance on natural light and geometrically precise shot composition gives his work the convincing quality of a dream, not a documentary. Nykvist explains that light is the key to his cinematography, and that light is a character in Bergman's films. The significance of an actor's actions often is determined by subtle differences in lighting. This fascination with light is probably linked to both men's experience of Sweden's sunless winters and unblinking summer sun. On Cries and Whispers the two men spent weeks simply gauging the natural light at different times of day inside the house which served as the main interior for the film. This careful preproduction work in terms of light is typical of their style.

Although each of Nykvist's films for Bergman has its own unique look, Nykvist typically favors a soft bounce lighting. Careful positioning of highlights prevents the usual flattening effect of such lighting, and gives actors a rounded, three-dimensional look which is flattering. He uses a minimum of color saturation, and sets and costumes are usually chosen in muted tones. In his Hollywood films, the demands of directors and time schedules has sometimes forced him to experiment with technical gimmicks. He steered away from them in Bergman films, however, relying instead on a dogged determination to wait until the natural light was right to shoot. One exception to this is Bergman's fantasy The Magic Flute, shot in a studio, in which Nykvist used a good many colored filler and key lights and a strong backlight rather than his usual bounce lighting; yet he still preferred to manipulate the light rather than use extensive lab work or distorting lenses and filters. More typical of his style is his bravura camerawork on Scenes from a Marriage, which included ten-minute takes with as many as 20 zooms per take, plus complex camera movements. His ability to track an actor precisely and sensitively during a long take is phenomenal, and most of Scenes from a Marriage was shot with only one camera, held, of course, by Nykvist. Despite his technical mastery and careful preplanning, he relies heavily on instinct and a feel for shots, and approaches his work more as an artist than a technician.

For decades, foreign cinematographers had little chance of working in American films. The easing of union regulations in the 1970s, however, allowed European directors of photography an increasing visibility in the American film industry. Since then, Nykvist has photographed a variety of American films, from Agnes of God to What's Eating Gilbert Grape. And over the years, he has worked for other filmmakers, including Louis Malle, Roman Polanski, Andrei Tarkovsky, Volker Schlöndorff, Philip Kaufman, Lasse Hallstrom, Nora Ephron, Liv Ullmann (in which he maintained his Bergman connection), and Woody Allen, and directed his own films. Particularly notable is his work with Allen on Another Woman, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Celebrity, and the "Oedipus Wrecks" episode of New York Stories. But Nykvist still remains synonymous with Ingmar Bergman, with their collaboration producing the cinematographer's most innovative, influential, and renowned work. In Light Keeps Me Company, a documentary directed by Nykvist's son, Carl-Gustav, Bergman noted, "Sven and I saw things alike, thought things alike; our feeling for light was the same. We had the same basic moral positions about camera placement."

—Patricia Ferrara, updated by Rob Edelman

Nykvist, Sven

views updated May 23 2018

Sven Nykvist

Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist (1922-2006) was among the most widely recognized and influential practitioners of his art in film history, with a distinctive style that added impact to Swedish art house classics and American movie hits alike.

Nykvist's camera work was particularly identified with the films of Ingmar Bergman (1919-2007), and he developed his style largely in the films he made with that legendary Swedish director. His style depended heavily on natural light, avoiding the use of complicated studio lighting effects, and he was a master at using ambient surroundings to deepen the psychological content of a scene. Often Nykvist's brilliance lay merely in his ability to find simple solutions. “The gaffers we work with can't believe how few lights Sven uses,” American television commercial director Cal Bernstein, for whom Nykvist often worked, told Robert Goldrich of Back Stage. “Sven looks at the trucks, asks ‘What do you need all these lights for?’ … He puts one light here, one there and he's ready to go.” Bernstein also recalled a cinematographer friend who became obsessed with figuring out how Nykvist had set up the lighting in a particular scene in the film Sacrifice. Finally Bernstein agreed to ask Nykvist how he had done it, and Nykvist replied that he had lit the scene entirely with natural light, using no electric lights at all.

Saw Parents at Four-Year Intervals

Sven Vilhem Nykvist was born in Moheda, in Sweden's Smaland province, on December 3, 1922. His parents, Natanael and Gerda Nykvist, were Lutheran missionaries working in the Belgian Congo (now the Republic of Congo). They feared that their son would contract malaria in Africa, so they boarded him with relatives or in a home he shared with the children of other missionaries. As a child he lived with them for only one year of every five. Nykvist's parents sent word to his guardians that he was forbidden to go to the movies, which they considered sinful. The ban may have intensified the young Nykvist's interest in the burgeoning art form, and Nykvist's father also influenced his son in another way, as he was an avid photographer of African wildlife. Nykvist acquired a box camera and then a small movie camera, which he used to have himself filmed by a friend while practicing the high jump with his school track team.

There was no film school in Sweden in the late 1930s, so Nykvist enrolled at the Municipal School for Photographers in Stockholm. He landed his first film job at age 19, in 1941, as an assistant cameraman with Sandrews, the large Swedish studio that later issued many of Ingmar Bergman's films, working on a film called The Poor Millionaire. Unsure of his career choice, he went to visit his parents in Africa. While he was there, he shot footage for a documentary called In the Footsteps of the Witch Doctor. Back in Sweden, studio owner Anders Sandrew offered to acquire the documentary and distribute it. Nykvist then became an apprentice with Julius Jaenzon, the top Swedish cinematographer of the time, and he worked through the 1940s on a series of films that are now mostly forgotten. He never had any formal education in film, but he broadened his cinematic experience by working for a year as a cameraman at the Cinecittà studio in Rome, Italy.

Serious Swedish filmmakers of the time were often influenced by the Expressionist style, which featured heavy shadows, dramatic lighting and makeup, and sometimes surreal effects. As Nykvist gained greater experience, he began to win assignments with prominent directors such as Alf Sjöstrom. His path crossed that of Ingmar Bergman when he worked as a cinematographer filming the interior quarters of a circus troupe for Bergman's expressionist 1953 film Sawdust and Tinsel. At the time, Bergman was still working primarily with cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, but according to London's Daily Telegraph he remarked to Nykvist, “I think we should work a whole life together.”

Nykvist continued to find his skills in demand in Sweden, working on seven films during the year 1956 alone. His breakthrough came in 1960 when Bergman became dissatisfied with Fischer's harsh style, on display in such stark classics as The Seventh Seal, and turned to Nykvist as he prepared to film the naturalistic revenge fable The Virgin Spring. From then on, Nykvist would work as director of photography on all of Bergman's films and television productions, except for his final film, Saraband (2003). The two men, who shared the experience of growing up in families headed by remote religious figures, worked so closely together that in many films it is difficult to tell where Bergman's inspiration ends and Nykvist's begins.

Observed Light Conditions Closely

Among the first films on which Nykvist worked with Bergman were a bleak trilogy dealing with the theme of loss of religious faith. One of the films, Winter Light (1963), dealt with a minister in a northern Swedish town, where there might be only three hours of daylight in winter. Nykvist remarked to Bergman that there would not be a great variety of lighting conditions on location, but Bergman replied, as Nykvist recalled in an American Film Institute seminar quoted on the Fathom Web site, “That's what you think. Let's go to the churches in northern Sweden.” The pair spent weeks in the frozen Swedish north, “looking at the light during the three hours between eleven and two o'clock. We saw that it changed a lot, and it helped him in writing the script because he always writes the moods.”

Thus Bergman helped Nykvist develop his famed sensitivity to natural light. Likewise, Nykvist helped devise several of Bergman's most famous cinematic images. One came in Persona (1966), a study of schizophrenia in which the personalities of two women seem to merge at one point in the film. “Nykvist,” noted the Daily Telegraph, “illustrated this in a single shot that can haunt the viewer for days afterwards. He took the left half of one girl's face and the right half of the other's and spliced them together to form a composite image that was spookily non-human.” Nykvist worked with other Swedish filmmakers during the 1960s, such as Mai Zetterling on Loving Couples in 1964, but it was his work with Bergman that began to bring his name before international audiences.

All these films were in black and white, and Nykvist and Bergman approached the use of color gingerly after the failure of their comedy Now About These Women, shot “according to the Kodak rule book,” as Nykvist said, according to the Daily Telegraph. When Nykvist did begin to work in color, however, he achieved some of his most brilliant successes. Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972), a grim drama about a woman dying of cancer, featured powerful scenes bathed in the color red. Again Nykvist and Bergman spent several weeks observing the lighting in the house where the film was made. The amount of planning might seem excessive, but as Nykvist observed to Goldrich, “Everything [in production] goes much quicker. We finished ‘Cries And Whispers’ in 42 days.” The film brought Nykvist his first Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Other Bergman films of the 1970s, including Autumn Sonata and the made-for-television Scenes from a Marriage also brought Nykvist critical acclaim.

When he began to work in the United States, Nykvist had to make several adjustments to his methods. Leisurely preproduction of the kind he enjoyed with Bergman was impossible. And, although it was a relaxation in union regulations that allowed U.S. directors to hire Nykvist as director of photography in the first place, he was still not allowed to actually operate the camera himself, as that still had to be done by a union employee. Nykvist's first American film was Pretty Baby, made in New Orleans by French director Louis Malle; despite the new restrictions under which he worked, the firm was critically acclaimed.

Talents Stimulated Demand

Nykvist found his services in great demand in the 1980s. Bergman's output was slowing, but Nykvist worked on two of the great films of the director's later years, Fanny and Alexander (which earned Nykvist his second Oscar in 1982) and After the Rehearsal (1984). In the United States, Nykvist served as cinematographer for various high profile films, including a 1981 remake of the film noir thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice, a 1988 film adaptation of Milan Kundera's Czech novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and several films by director Woody Allen, including Crimes and Misdemeanors.) Nykvist's marriage to his wife, Ulla, which began in 1952, dissolved in 1968; it produced two sons, one of whom committed suicide. His surviving son, Carl-Gustav Nykvist, became a film director and in 2000 made a documentary, Light Keeps Me Company, about his father's work.

Even after he became widely recognized as one of the greatest cinematographers alive, Nykvist continued to work on television commercials periodically. “When you make too long a stop in between features, you can lose touch,” he explained to Goldrich. “A cinematographer is like a pianist, he has to train always. Otherwise you get like a boxer who hasn't been able to box for a long time. Commercials can help keep you sharp.” He also set down his ideas on cinematography in a series of articles for American Cinematographer, France's Positif, and other magazines in the late 1980s.

Nykvist remained active almost until the end of his long life, and he was associated with several major hits in the 1990s, among them the 1993 comedy Sleepless in Seattle. He worked closely with Swedish directors after Bergman, making What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and other films with Lasse Hallström and Kristin Lavransdotter with actressturned-director Liv Ullmann. Cinematography, like other aspects of filmmaking, was increasingly impacted by computer technology in the 1990s, but Nykvist had little interest in reinventing his art in old age. “Computers are now creating new traditions of cinematography, but I'm frankly happy I was born at the time I was and was able to experiment as I have done,” he told Marlene Edmunds of Variety. In 1996 he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Society of Cinematographers. Returning to work with Woody Allen on Celebrity in 1998, he began to show signs of aphasia, a form of dementia, while working on the film. The last of his approximately 120 films was Curtain Call (1999). Nykvist died in Stockholm on September 20, 2006.


International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 4: Writers and Production Artists, 4th ed., St. James Press, 2000.


Back Stage, February 5, 1988.

Daily Telegraph (London, England), September 21, 2006.

Guardian (London, England), September 22, 2006.

Independent (London, England), September 22, 2006.

New York Times, September 21, 2006.

Quadrant, November 2006.

Variety, February 17, 1997; September 25, 2006.


“Shooting with Ingmar Bergman,” Fathom, http://www.fathom.com/feature/122159/index.html (November 23, 2007).

“Sven Nykvist,” All Movie Guide, http://www.allmovie.com (November 23, 2007).