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Gunnar Fischer, 1910 - 2011


"Gunnar Fischer, a cinematographer whose use of stark lighting and sharp focus lent mood and psychological depth to a dozen of Ingmar Bergman's early films, including The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, died on Saturday in Stockholm," reports William Grimes for the New York Times. "He was 100."

"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." Adam Bernstein: "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."

"Of course everyone will put up images from The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, and of course they should, but I wanted to illustrate Fischer's artistry with a pair of screen caps from Ingmar Bergman's 1949 Thirst." Glenn Kenny has looking again.

Bergmanorama quotes the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: "His style is heavily influenced both by the facial landscapes of Carl Dreyer, for whom he worked, and by the psychological landscapes of Victor Sjöström, whom he knew. Fischer is thus in the mainstream of the Scandinavian tradition. His work features some of the closest and most intensely psychological close-ups and two-shots in film history."

And the Ingmar Bergman Foundation quotes Fischer himself: "I felt privileged collaborating with Bergman. He was never indifferent to photography. He could be upset if he didn't like what he saw. Why our collaboration ended with The Devil's Eye, I don't really know. Realistically it's most likely that he thought Sven Nykvist was a better photographer." The Foundation also notes: "One of his last film assignments was Jacques Tati's Parade (1974) where he collaborated with his son Jens, one of the most distinguished Swedish cinematographers of the 1990s and 2000s."

Updates: Movieline's ST VanAirsdale posts a clip: "I love Fischer's opening to Wild Strawberries, in which Dr Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) recounts a nightmare only Bergman could conceive: An empty street, sun blazing, clocks without hands, disfigured wraiths, and ultimately a horse-drawn hearse to fill in the blanks on just where, exactly, Borg has found himself."

And Criterion's got a wide-ranging selection of stills.

"It is no accident that three of Bergman's films have 'summer' in the title," writes Ronald Bergan for the Guardian, "and many others were set in that season, the only period of happiness for his characters before the encroachment of autumn and reality, the camera brilliantly recording the transient sun-soaked days. For the charmed comedy of manners Smiles of a Summer Night, which mostly takes place at a country mansion over a weekend during which couples meet, separate and exchange partners, Fischer created sensuous, back-lit twilights."

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I appreciate the candor of this quote, “Realistically it’s most likely that he thought Sven Nykvist was a better photographer.” I also appreciate the texture of his work. Sad news.
For those of you who understand swedish, there’s a great podcast from the Swedish Cinematheque in honor of Gunnar Fischer. A full hour’s conversation with his sons (also film photographers) about Fischers career and the development of the Swedish film industry, topped off with anecdotes from the sets of some of Bergmans most well known films (for instance how the famous dance of death-scene in The Seventh Seal, pictured above, came about by chance).

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