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Remembering A Master of Light

Thursday, January 11----2006 marked the final curtain for many film greats. But perhaps none of them was as influential, or as endearing to both professionals and the public, as the renowned Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Known as the “Master of Light”, Nykvist brought a shimmering yet subtle beauty to his filmed work, particularly his long and prolific collaboration with fellow Swedish film icon Ingmar of most glorious collaborations in film history. To salute the importance of Nykvist and his remarkable work, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) will present, from January 12 to 14, three films from its collection that exemplify his magnificent contribution to the art of cinematography.

MoMA will present one of the key Nykvist-Bergman collaborations, 1963’s THE SILENCE (Tystnanden), featuring Bergman regulars Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom. The film focuses on the emotional distance between two sisters….the vivacious younger one and the sickly older one, both of whom long to make a human connection. Nyvist’s striking camerawork, which includes many extended close-ups and atmosphering lighting, enhances the existential isolation of these two characters in a way that is haunting, disturbing and very recognizably human. The film won the Golden Bug (the Swedish Oscar) as Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress for Ingrid Thulin.

The series also includes a rare screening of AN-MAGRITT (1969), directed by Arne Skouen. The film, which stars the luminiscent Liv Ullman, is based on a famous Norwegian novel set in the 17th century. Nykvist’s cool and clear light brings an added dimension of austerity to the poor mining town where the melodramatic action takes place.

Finally, the cinematographer’s collaboration with Woody Allen, a confirmed Bergman-phile, is featured in one of the Woodman’s most complex and substantive films, the thoughtful CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989). The emotional (and sometimes physical) violence that even the noblest among us are capable of makes a scorching comment on the triumph of the ego and the ability we human beings have for excusing our basest motives and actions. The film was nominated for 3 Oscars, including Best Director and Best Screenplay nods for Allen and a Supporting Actor nomination for Martin Landau.

During his long career that spanned almost half a century, Nyvist perfected the art of cinematography to its most simple attributes, and helped give the films he had worked on the simplest and most natural look imaginable. Late in his career he was quoted as saying “Today we make everything so complicated. The lighting, the camera, the acting….it has taken me thirty years to arrive at simplicity." Indeed, Nykvist prided himself on the simplicity and naturalness of his lighting schemes to create a mood and, more significantly, to bring out the natural flesh tones in the human face so that the emotion of the scene could be played out on the face.

His nearly 50 year career began in 1941, when he entered the Swedish film industry at the age of 19, and eventually worked his way up to becoming a director of photography. He first worked with the legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman on the film THE NAKED NIGHT (1948). For almost 25 years, the two revolutionalized not only Swedish filmmaking but world cinema, with such landmark films as THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961), WINTER LIGHT (1962), THE SILENCE (1963), PERSONA (1966), THE PASSION OF ANNA (1969), culminating in the expressionism of CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972), for which Nykvist won an Oscar for his dramatic use of color to establish emotional resonance and metaphoric symbolism.

During the 1970s, Nykvist continued to work with Bergman on such later classics as SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1973), FACE TO FACE (1976), THE SERPENT’S EGG (1977) and AUTUMN SONATA (1978). He won his second Oscar for his final collaboration with Bergman, the enigmatic and expressive FANNY AND ALEXANDER (1982).

For the next two decades, Nykvist worked with some of the most celebrated film directors of his times, including 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, CELEBRITY), Sir Richard Attenborough (CHAPLIN), and fellow Swede Lasse Hallström (WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE). He also made a celebrated directorial debut in the 1991 film, THE OX, with an all-star cast including Stellan Skarsgård, Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson.

In all, Nykvist worked on more than 130 feature, leaving an indelible mark as a master of camera angles and light. His contributions to all the film classics mentioned is incalculable…..he more than shared the credit with the films’ directors for their unique place in cinema history.

For more information on SVEN NYKVIST REMEMBERED, visit the website: Museum of Modern Art

Sandy Mandelberger
Film New York Editor


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Mandelberger Sandy
(International Media Resources)

The Ultimate Guide to the New York Film, Video and New Media Scene.

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