It Was Ingmar Bergman's Picture, but Gunnar Fischer's Camera

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2008

Gunnar Fischer remembers being criticized for how he shot one of the most vivid scenes in "The Seventh Seal," the movie that launched filmmaker Ingmar Bergman's international reputation and made him an art house favorite for decades.

"The Seventh Seal" (1957), an allegory of Cold War fears, was set in the 14th century and featured Max von Sydow as a knight playing chess with Death. 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," said Fischer, 97, who lives near Stockholm and conducted an e-mail interview translated by his son Jens, also a cinematographer.

Gunnar Fischer remains one of the world's most respected movie craftsmen, helping set the visual tone for filmmakers as varied as Walt Disney and psychologically attuned Danish director Carl Dreyer.

But Fischer's legacy is bound to the dozen or so films he made from 1948 to 1960 with fellow Swede Bergman, who died last July. (Many of their early classics are being screened Feb. 8 to March 4 at the AFI Silver, the first of at least two AFI series on Bergman to honor what would have been his 90th year.)

Fischer 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," in which a parade of characters dance to their fate with scythe-wielding Death leading the way.

Fischer said he brought to Bergman a "fantasy-like style. It wasn't about making the scenes realistic but more theatric, like a saga."

After their collaboration ended abruptly in 1960 -- the reasons remain murky -- Bergman hired a new director of photography, Sven Nykvist, with whom he remained for decades.

"Fischer's great skill was in monochrome," or black and white, said film historian and Bergman scholar Peter Cowie. "He gave Bergman's films that unique expressionistic look, with their brilliant contrasts in every gradation of black and white. . . . For me, he was as important to Bergman's early period as Nykvist was to the later."

The AFI series will include two films Bergman made with Nykvist, "Sawdust and Tinsel" (1953), as well as "The Virgin Spring" (1960), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film. But so many of the other recognizable titles, including "Wild Strawberries" (1957) and "The Magician" (1958), were made with Fischer guiding the look and feel of the scenes.

Fischer has been critical of "Wild Strawberries," because the leading man, played by the prominent Swedish director Victor Sjostrom, was ill and Fischer had to shoot long scenes in a car with fake-looking back projection.

Nevertheless, the film bears the hallmarks of all of Bergman's finest work, notably the expressiveness of the actors' faces as they portray aspects of the human condition. Fischer 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 the characters.

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