Sven Nykvist

by Philippe Houdart, cameraman, AFCF

La Lettre AFC n°159

[ English ] [ français ]

My intention is not, via this short text, to pay a tribute to Nykvist’s artistic and technical qualities, as they have been, in the past decades, internationally recognized and analyzed by specialists much more qualified than I am ; I simply wish to touch on those exceptional human qualities of his that would transform any encounter with him into unforgettable memories.

It was through Jean Harnois that I got the chance to become Sven’s assistant on the three films Peter Brook did on The Tragedy of Carmen and then, after a missed opportunity on A Love of Swann, to reunite with him as a second unit cameraman and operator on Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Sven Nykvist et Andreï Tarkovski - Sur le tournage du <i>Sacrifice</i> (Photo Lars-Olof Löthwall, avec l'aimable autorisation de
Sven Nykvist et Andreï Tarkovski
Sur le tournage du Sacrifice (Photo Lars-Olof Löthwall, avec l’aimable autorisation de

Working alongside Sven meant working alongside a legend. Or at least, this was how I perceived it beforehand. Yet, in fact, it meant so much more than that. It meant working with a man whose human qualities, his simplicity, congeniality, kindness, sense of humour and derision went much beyond his artistic and technical qualities. Should you win his trust, he would know, after a couple of days of shooting, how to make you feel like you had been his assistant or his cameraman forever. He would share his doubts and fears, but also his joy... his memories, too. To hear him tell me of his “catastrophic” début as a young, inexperienced cinematographer ; to hear him recollect his shootings, always putting forward his “blunders” and his fears rather than his satisfactions ; to hear him questioning me on Woody Allen, whom he was about to meet, “because you were lucky enough to work with him” and because he felt like a kid about to meet Santa ; to hear him tell me, on The Unbearable Lightness of Being, that he envied me for working on the second unit - “second unit is more fun, and, besides, it’s thanks to your shots that I’ll get a new Academy Award” (we were only nominated, but thanks to his shots) - ; all these are memories among others that give me the feeling that, more than a huge cinematographer, I worked with a great man.

The last I saw of Sven was for a dinner in a restaurant near his hotel. It was just the two of us, and we had a very close evening. He was tired and did not try and hide it, but he was still extremely enthusiastic and had many projects he wanted to share. His smile when we parted, the light of it and of his gaze will remain forever in my heart - a light equal to the unforgettable light he graced his films with.

(Translated from French by Mathilde Bouhon)