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Sven Nykvist

A perennial late Latif that I am, a visit to doctor’s office would not normally permit me to leaf through the magazines neatly stacked on the table in the middle of the visitors’ waiting room. However this time I picked up a magazine though I knew the nurse would walk in anytime, had time to turn to page three and read an obituary in the obscure corner of news round up. It read – Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist died (Dec, 1922 – Sept, 2006).

It took a while to infer what it meant to me. It certainly was not about personal bereavement, but something relatively abstract, more personal than a bio and literally about seeing inner and outer worlds from the vantage point of the lens underneath the iris.

Sven knew where and when to look through his darkly lens. Of course you would know that more than anyone else when you have Bergman and Tarkovsky in company. How do visuals make you forget the composition, the chromo metrics of lighting and the whirring descends and ascends of tripods, to lead you to an atmosphere ethereal and tactile and you are weary that the dream you conjure up with eyes wide open is about to vanish? How much do we miss out on this world of its blinding beauty and the color of people’s minds? Sven’s art made me visceral about the crushing beauty of everything that he captured on camera, including tragedy.

I watched Cries and Whispers (1973) in an auditorium for a makeshift theatre on top of Ernakulam public library. The rental chairs and the projector were disconcertingly rickety. But that didn’t stop me from being absorbed in the majestic denouement of crimson red on the screen. I was lost. I began to think in color. If soul had color, it had to be a dragon’s red. The tortured, poignant and sometimes wailing relationships were portrayed in color. Though Bergman cleverly sketched the backdrop in fleeting beauty of fall and traditional European set and period, Sven’s art stood out. The last scene where after her funeral Karin read to the audience from her diary about a charmed moment when the three sisters clothed in silken white, strolled about in a sunlit park. They sat beside each other on a swing. Karin reminisced that as a perfect moment of anguish and happiness, and how she cherished its perfection.

Sven made the scene absolutely out of this world. I took the last bus home that night as a believer.

Bergman’s trilogy of faith was another astonishing feat of Sven. Those who watched Winter Light cannot forget the frigid winter in the exterior and interior of pastor Tomas, and the longest close up on Ingrid Thulin as she waded into their soulless existence with her monologue. Who will forget the pointless meanderings of Johann along the hotel’s labyrinthine corridors and the echoes of God’s silence in The Silence? In passion of Anna, Sven deconstructed the colors and eventually the coherence of visuals and senses to portray the emotional isolation of Andreas and his violent resistance to Anna’s efforts to break ice. Sven’s provoking use of deconstructionist contrivances of post modern art and the incredible of implosion of visuals to its photonic sources in the end were unparalleled in their originality and creativity.

Human face was as wide a canvass for as the landscape of Gotland overlooking the Baltic Sea. Persona (1966) was a case in point and a consummation of Bergman’s idea of movie camera as ‘an incredible instrument for recording human soul as captured in the human face’. Despite the open ended plot of the movie, Sven’s camera displays great control and simultaneous sweep of Brechtian alienation techniques, deconstructionist devices and sensitive portrayal of the Nurse and the Patient in a seemingly linear and natural narrative. The movie is one of the post modern marvels.

Fanny and Alexander (1982) was a retreat for Bergman and Sven to the common sources of their shared fascination. The magical world unleashed from the perspective of a child showed an unbridled curiosity to go beyond the limits of memory and perceptivity of adulthood. Child’s amazement at the wonders of everyday discovery, a home theatre which was the playground of dreams, the lantern lit nights in the dormitory where children peeped into the kaleidoscope, the fun and frolic of festive times at the family dinner, the sudden demise of the children’s father marking the end of an era, escapades into the ghostly fantasy world, the defiant confrontation of authority in step father, the terror of growing up, the realization of anguish in wisdom were all taken part while observed through the eyes of a child. Childhood could never be dull. Sven captured the ephemeral world of a child’s life with all its incomprehensibilities, delights, pain and wisdom.

Sacrifice (1986) was Tarkovsky’s final film. In many ways Sven lived the grandeur and abomination of living a camera man’s life during Sacrifice’s shoot. The long shots which were Tarkovsky’s wont, achieved grace in Sven’s camera, even when the Alexander burned down his house as a sacrifice to redeem the world out of nuclear holocaust. That was when the single camera Sven had at his disposal jammed while the house was being charred. And when the rebuilt house was burnt again, midway the blaze, camera had run through an entire reel breaking down the crew into tears. Sven gave Tarkovsky his meditating lens to draw the twilight zone where human kind’s loss of spirituality was acknowledged leading to the repentance and ultimate offer of sacrifice. The wide landscape, Bach’s music, the Japanese flute, Leanordo Davinci’s chiaroscuro painting of the Adoration of the Magi were all pointers to the creative sources of this astonishing and grandiloquently flawed masterpiece made for posterity.

Sven, like Tarkovsky should be known for his spectacular failure as well as many stellar accomplishments which came just as easy.


nsm said…
brilliant. after reading your blog i saw fanny and alexander once more. and also started seeing sven -- i never knew his filmography -- in a new 'light'. that's what all good obits are meant to be -- to reveal the life of the dead
Ubermensch said…
sven n tarko r from a different world altogether, the one which we can not even dream to touch in the present day.
thanks for the bitsn blobs on sacrifice, i had no idea about the shoottrivia.
Rajesh said…
nsm sir, thanks for visiting. I am glad that the blog was an excuse for you to indulge in Fanny Alex again. What a delight the movie is.

Uber Bhai, hope the sabbatical has energized you enough for us to miss the lost time already :)

I thought you read a previous blog on sacrifice and the trivia, here
Ubermensch said…
raj, sabbatical is just beginning;) am sorta had a good alcohol detox , but you know, im still given to excesses ;-)

i had missed ur earlier blog. thank you.
Vidya said…
A lovely post on Nyquist. Here was a man who understood light and darkness!

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