Monday, July 11, 2011

Gunnar Fischer & the Art of Cinematography

It seems to me that cinematographers often do not get the respect they deserve, which is a shame as film is at its heart such a visual medium. Most cinematographers tend to go unremarked upon, except by the truly devoted film buff. There are exceptions, of course, such as Christopher Doyle today (even though he is reknowned for his distempter as much as his talent), or Sven Nykvist before him. Nykvist, like the actors von Sydow and Ullmann, gained fame through a long and fruitful collaboration with Ingmar Bergman; his own career became synonymous with the director's. Nykvist even earned enough prestige to win not one, but two cinematography Oscars for subtitled films. You may draw whatever conclusions you wish from the fact that Doyle, despite lensing some of the more influential films of the last two decades (i.e., his own bountiful collarboration with Wong Kar-Wai), has yet to receive a nomination from today's Academy.

Yet Nykvist was not the first cinemtographer to enjoy an extended working relationship with Bergman; that honor goes to Gunnar Fischer, who passed away a couple of weeks ago. At age 100, he expereinced not only most of the twentieth century, but most of the history of cinema as well. His training took place during the silent period, an era of vitality for Scandanavian film in general; Fischer even collaborated with Carl Dreyer, one of that period's masters. Fischer and Bergman formed a partnership that lasted a little over a decade, before splitting for unspecified reasons. Working together, they produced many of the most iconic images of Bergman's career in films, such as The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and Smiles of a Summer Night. In addition to these acknowledged classics, he shot two of my favorite Bergman films: The Magician and Summer Interlude.

In honor of Fischer's passing, I recently rewatched Summer Interlude, an excerpt of which I have included below. The film was made during the early phase of Bergman's career, and was once refered to by the director as the first movie he made in his own voice. This fact is instantly recognizable in the themes (art, love, death) that preoccupy a narrative that tells the story of a ballerina and her first youthful brush with love. The ballet sequences are shot on a sparse stage illuminated by striking beams of light. The focus is entirely on the dancers moving as one. It is only after they leave the stage that our heroine, Marie, is separated from the company. Marie meets Henrik during summer vacation, and there is a superb lightness of touch to their carefree revels. There is also a great charm within the lackidasical manner in which Marie goes about her morning routine, and the tranquil beauty of waters so calm that we may glimpse below as Marie's boat drifts along. Towards the end of the clip, take note of the extensive grounds stretching out behind Marie and her uncle as they have their post-dinner chat; Fischer's admiration of Gregg Toland's deep-focus work is clearly on display.

Overall, the film is a remarkable achievement by all its participants (as always, Bergman's coaxes first-rate performances from his entire cast, though especially from Maj-Britt Nilsson as Marie). It is a film that deserves to be better known. However, there is satisfaction to be found in the fact that other works of Fischer's have so far stood the test of time, and it is quite likely that his images shall still be recognized, even if his name is not.


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