Gunnar Fischer, Bergman’s cinematographer, dies at 100

June 12, 2011

Gunnar Fischer, 100, a highly respected movie craftsman whose cinematography helped set the visual tone for filmmakers as varied as Ingmar Bergman and Walt Disney, died June 11 at a retirement home in Stockholm. He had an infection and fever.

Mr. Fischer’s legacy is bound to the dozen or so films he made from 1948 to 1960 with fellow Swede Bergman. He is widely recognized as the first cinematographer to capture with unparalleled beauty the cruelty, sensuality and selfishness that often collided in the same scene among Bergman’s anguished characters.

“Fischer’s great skill was in monochrome,” or black and white, film historian and Bergman scholar Peter Cowie told The Washington Post in 2008. “He gave Bergman’s films that unique expressionistic look, with their brilliant contrasts in every gradation of black and white.”

He translated Bergman’s themes of emotional isolation, sexual anguish and fear of death into unforgettable images: cold Scandinavian sunlight sparkling off water in “Summer Interlude” (1951) and “Summer With Monika” (1953); the brittle twilight in the sex farce “Smiles of a Summer Night” (1955); and the finale of “The Seventh Seal” (1957), a Cold War allegory in which a parade of characters dance to their fate with scythe-wielding Death leading the way.

In a 2008 interview with The Post, Mr. Fischer said he brought to Bergman a “fantasy-like style. It wasn’t about making the scenes realistic but more theatric, like a saga.”

He recalled being criticized for how he shot one of the most vivid scenes in “The Seventh Seal,” the movie that launched Bergman’s international reputation and made him an art-house favorite for decades.

The film was set in the 14th century and featured Max von Sydow as a knight playing chess with Death (played by Bengt Ekerot). Mr. Fischer used two powerful lights to throw the actors’ bodies into sharp relief, but the illumination made it appear to some that the sky had two suns. Others found the scene too artificial-looking.

“To this I usually respond: If you can accept the fact that there is a knight sitting on a beach playing chess with Death, you should be able to accept that the sky has two suns,” Mr. Fischer said.

Erling Gunnar Fischer was born Nov. 18, 1910, in Ljungby, Sweden. He attended art school in Copenhagen and later wrote and illustrated children’s books, including “Hide-and-Seek Voyage” (1953), a tale of stowaways that critic Ellen Lewis Buell writing in the New York Times called a “happy extravaganza.”

As a young man, Mr. Fischer served in the Swedish navy as a chef and was asked to entertain prominent guests aboard ship, including an actress who gave Mr. Fischer entree to the film industry in the mid-1930s.

He underwent an apprenticeship before working with prominent directors, including the celebrated Carl Theodor Dreyer, a Danish-born filmmaker known for depicting actors’ faces with a cold, often unflattering clarity. Mr. Fischer regarded their collaboration on “Two People” (1945) as a turning point in his understanding of sharp lighting.

Mr. Fischer first paired with Bergman on the 1948 melodrama “Port of Call.” “We came to an agreement quite early to never become each other’s ‘bowing servants,’ ” Mr. Fischer said. “We were never to praise each other or to give compliments about what we read in the newspaper. We were critical and could always speak our minds.”

Their working relationship largely ended with “The Devil's Eye” (1960), and the story of their breakup remains the subject of speculation, ranging from a possible clash over a woman to Bergman’s hectoring ways.

Mr. Fischer said Bergman asked him to work on “The Silence” (1963), but he was busy on the Disney television production of “Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates” and the two drifted apart. Bergman began to use Sven Nykvist more regularly as Mr. Fischer's replacement.

Bergman, Mr. Fischer said, “gave me a great opportunity to develop my artistry, as opposed to the many cinematographers that are stuck with mass-produced comedies. It has enriched my pictorial expression.”

He was married to Gull Söderblom from 1938 until her death in 2005. Survivors include two sons, Jens and Peter, who are both cinematographers; six granddaughters; and five great-grandchildren.

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
Most Read Local