Sven Nykvist, I remember...

by François Catonné, AFC

La Lettre AFC n°159

[English] [français]

I met Sven Nykvist through Louis Malle. Tonino Delli Colli, whom I had assisted on Lacombe Lucien, was unavailable for Blackmoon - a strange film, without dialogues, starring Joe D’Alessandro and Alexandra Stewart.

I was very disappointed, until I heard Louis Malle had appointed Nykvist, whom he had wanted to work with for a long time. A year later, Sven requested me again to do Polanski’s The Tenant. After that, I became a cinematographer, and I did not do the other films he shot in France. He did five :

- 1974 Blackmoon by Louis Malle

- 1975 The Tenant by Roman Polanski

- 1982 The Tragedy of Carmen by Peter Brook

- 1983 A Love of Swann by Volker Schlöndorff

- 1987 The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Philip Kaufman

as well as a few commercials. I did one with him.

A few of us therefore were lucky enough to work with him : Dominique Le Rigoleur and Jean Harnois as cameramen, Arthur Cloquet, Philippe Houdart, Guillaume Schiffman, Nils Tavernier, Anne Trigaux and Bruno de Keyzer who was second assistant with me on the first two films. And I think that all take pride and joy in having worked alongside him.

Sven was first and foremost a great artist, even before he was a great cinematographer. I was impressed with his sense of plastic, his taste, his creativity. I also remember his sweetness, his immense kindness. Henri Colomer speaks of a wonderful man in his testimonial -that was it. He was always calm on a set, he seemed serene, moved softly.

Surely, he was very happy there.

I was a young assistant who would question him about his work all the time, asking a thousand questions, sometimes even while he was lighting. I wanted to know everything he would do and how he would do it. He would never grow impatient. He would always answer, and, in a most generous way, he would never conceal anything about his ways. In remembrance of his patience, I always made a duty of explaining my work to my assistants.

He ended up giving me three words of advice, like a code of conduct, that he would often reiterate : to be flexible, to keep it simple, and to take risks... He used to say that turning off one spotlight when he had set up two was a proof of progress. These were invaluable lessons.

I was impressed with his ability to evolve, too. Shifting from the heavily contrasted black and white of The Silence, with its near absent greys and its pronounced shadows, to the soft light of Cries and Whispers and a masterful use of colour. In between, he had put away the enormous trunk of filters necessary to work in black and white and spent hours outside, at dawn, studying the morning light to be able to recreate it in the interiors of Cries and Whispers. I know he liked to watch and study natural light and dedicated a lot of time to this activity.

You could immediately see that he was a great image creator, doubled with an exceptional partner for the director. When you look at photographs of him and Bergman (see hyperlink below), the pictures show the two men’s communion. Their gazes tell of their closeness. Their collaboration started with a tough day during which Bergman accumulated all the possible difficulties in terms of frame and lighting to test his young cinematographer. The next day marked the beginning of a lifetime of work and friendship : 22 films in 31 years.

I also remember they were both the sons of ministers. Obviously, their upbringing brought them close, too.

While shooting, Bergman would have a 16mm camera everyone could use to record anything they wanted. A huge “making of” of sorts therefore exists, that tells the stories of those people who were making Bergman’s films... Nykvist’s son also made a DVD about his father.

I have often thought of him every since I first met him. He was a man you not only admired, but loved, too.

For pictures of Nykvist and Bergman, check here

(Translated from French by Mathilde Bouhon)