Fading of the Light: Sven Nykvist Remembered

By James Norton


Arguments as to who was the world’s greatest cinematographer never really had much of a chance before September 20 when the light finally faded from Sven Nykvist’s incomparable vision. Nykvist had for years suffered from a progressive aphasia and one can only imagine the effects of the withdrawal of language from this mind that had created so many memorable images. One would hope that his instinctive sensitivity to qualities of light would have brought its own consolations, the unknowable pleasures of a truly wordless perception of the patterns of light. Nykvist’s final film was the aptly named rom-com ghost story Curtain Call, for which he will not be remembered. His most successful film was When Harry Met Sally, the image of his that most will remember being Meg Ryan’s faked orgasm, for which all those studies of troubled feminine desire in Bergman’s great films were merely a rehearsal.

Nykvist first lit up Ingmar Bergman’s world with Sawdust and Tinsel in 1953 and the following year dazzled with Alf Sjoberg’s 16th century delirium Karin Mansdotter, a lost classic in urgent need of revival. The collaborations with Bergman gave us such highlights of the cinematographic art as the unflinching glare of Winter Light, all austere Lutheran lucidity; the graphic expressionism and geometries of desire of Persona, the dissolving red agonies of Cries and Whispers and the lambent gifts of Fanny and Alexander.

Nykvist’s masterpiece however was Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, his work a kind of alchemy without parallel in cinema, a radiograph of the human spirit, shimmering diamonds of the sunlit sea, woodcut oneiric contrasts of the Nordic snow, the milky sheen of the midnight sun, miraculously captured, night dreaming of day, and as a final virtuoso gesture of the imperious lens, his camera jamming during the lengthy tracking shot which records the film’s climactic conflagration, requiring the complete reconstruction of the set.

Nykvist’s parents were missionaries who were usually absent in the Belgian Congo, though as a young man he accompanied them to shoot wildlife footage. Through their son a transit can be recorded from the Heart of Darkness to the heart of light.

James Norton is an associate producer of television arts programmes.