Monday, 20 June 2011

Gunnar Fischer

Gunnar Fischer, who died on 11th June at the age of 101, was the first of Ingmar Bergman’s great cinematographic collaborators, and was instrumental in creating the beautiful black and white photography which distinguishes the best films from the first half of his career. He made 12 pictures with the Swedish director, beginning in atypical style with Port of Call in 1948. This was Bergman’s attempt at a film in the neo-realist style of Rossellini and de Sica, although his interest in the interior worlds of his characters and preference for shooting in the studio meant that the result showed more affinity with the poetical realism of Marcel Carne’s collaborations with Jacques Prevert and Jean Gabin, Le Jour se Leve and Quai des Brumes. Fischer assisted Bergman during the fairly lengthy period in which he searched for a distinctive style. Port of Call wasn’t a film which in any way went towards defining it, but it is an interesting side-step. The scenes shot on the docks of Gothenberg allowed Fischer to demonstrate his ability to depict a realistic milieu with a clear-eyed sense of the character and atmosphere of place.

The iconic scene - The Dance with Death from The Seventh Seal
Bergman had in fact wanted Fischer as his cameraman right from the start. He had begun shooting on the aptly named Crisis, Bergman’s debut film, in 1946, but after initial test reels had been shot, the studio had him replaced with a more well-established cinematographer. The two had met at the Svensk Filmindustri Studios, at which Bergman had just arrived. As Bergman put it in his autobiography The Magic Lantern, ‘we were contemporaries, enthusiastic, and we got on well together’. Bergman’s slow developmental progress as a film-maker continued, with Fischer adapting to his needs, with Three Strange Loves in 1949, and To Joy and This Can’t Happen Here in 1950. The latter was a relatively big budget studio affair which Bergman reluctantly took on. It was a spy thriller, very uncharacteristic material for him, and he felt no connection with it whatsoever. He describes the experience of making it with typically melodramatic language in Images: My Life in Film as being ‘complete torture from beginning to end’. It is one of only two of his many films which he claimed to view with shame. The other is the film he made in America in 1971, The Touch. Perhaps it is significant that both of these were films shot in English (at least It Can’t Happen Here was shot in separate Swedish and English versions) and thus designed to reach a wider audience. Bergman was always more comfortable on home territory. Fischer too only made the occasional foray into foreign filming. Fischer’s professionalism helped see him through the traumatic making of This Can’t Happen Here, and was also valuable in shooting the five commercials which Bergman made for Unilever. He seems to have been more cheerful about these ads for the new ‘Bris’ (or breeze) deodorant soap, for which he was able to insist on complete creative control. This included the power to choose his own crew, and Fischer was unhesitatingly appointed cameraman. Bergman described the ads as being ‘miniature films in the spirit of Georges Melies’, and they gave Fischer further scope for expanding his technical range and indulging in pastiches of earlier styles.

Pagan sensuality - Harriet Andersson in Summer With Monika
The film which really marked a breakthrough, and which can perhaps be seen as the first wholly characteristic Bergman film was Summer Interlude, made in 1951. As Bergman himself put it, it was ‘my first film in which I felt I was functioning independently, with a style of my own, making a film all my own, with a particular appearance of its own, which no one could ape’. Of course, Fischer contributed enormously to the creation of this ‘particular appearance’. He depicts a dualistic world composed of shadows and light and divided both in terms of geography and time (the time of life and the time of the season). These were dualities which would be further explored in Summer With Monika in 1953, another of the key films of Bergman’s early period. In both, Fischer captures the evanescent quality of the light as it plays on the clear waters surrounding the islets and isthmuses of the Stockholm Archipelago; the summer glint and dazzle on the waves and the rippled reflections they cast on dreamy interiors, giving them an enchanted subaquatic feel. In Summer With Monika, Monika wakes on the first morning moored in the archipelago to gaze up at the wavering water shadows on the roof of the boat, which are in turn cast down onto her face, illuminating a moment of pure happiness. Fischer was a master at painting such impressionistic cinematic pictures, and there are many to be found in the summer scenes of nature in Summer Interlude and Summer With Monika. He manages to bring a heightened intensity to his depictions of the brief Swedish Summer, lending it the power to embody the transitory nature of youth, love, happiness and life with which Bergman symbolically invests it. This is beautifully expressed in the scene in which Harriet Andersson’s Monika tiptoes nakedly across smooth rocks towards a rock pool, her outline blurred against the sun-flecked glaze of the ocean. It’s a moment of almost pagan sensuality, water, light, rock and flesh all indelibly felt, and it’s one to which Lars Ekborg’s hapless non-hero Harry will return in memory when things take a sour turn later on.

Enchanted summer nights - Summer With Monika
Fischer’s camerawork in the archipelago scenes of Summer With Monika serve to demonstrate his versatility and ability to adapt to unpredictable circumstances and the limitations imposed by available equipment. The budget was minimal and he only had a silent camera to work with. This may have been partly to his advantage, as it allowed him to be more mobile and flexible as to where he could go to shoot. Filming around the changing moods of the Swedish weather, a large degree of improvisation was required. The rather neurasthenic Bergman would normally be driven to despair by such lack of control, but Fischer was able to provide the supportive assurance of his reliable and steadfast professionalism and improvisatory nous, which allowed the moment to be calmly seized as required. As a result, Bergman was able to declare that ‘making Summer With Monika was a lot of fun’, and he didn’t even mind when they had to return to reshoot some of the archipelago footage. He voiced similarly pleasant memories of his time making Summer Interlude.

Meeting death on the road - Summer Interlude
The sun-filled scenes of watery, oceanic bliss are contrasted with the dark and oppressive atmosphere with which Fischer imbues the Stockholm scenes. In Summer With Monika, these seem to draw on film noir in the intensity and extent of the shadows in the alleyways, stairwells and streets. The city is made to seem dark and forbidding, the interiors ill-lit and claustrophobic. There is something of an air of the late 50s and early 60s English kitchen-sink dramas about these poor urban settings. Summer Interlude, with its theatrical backdrop, is rather more expressionistic in style, anticipating a significant aspect of the visual look of Bergman’s work. This is particularly evident in the dressing room scenes, with the exaggerated features of ballet make-up seen close-to giving a rationale for such an overemphasised look. The ballet setting inevitably brings to mind Powell and Pressburger and The Red Shoes. Fischer doesn’t give us a performer’s eye view of the performance, with expressionist projections of psychological interiority, as Powell does. He holds back, viewing the choreography as a whole from low or slightly elevated angles. The ballerinas themselves seem to be lit from within, glowing with the illumination of artistic dedication, hard work and passion. The sinister, lurking presence in the dressing room of the raptor-nosed, arch-eyebrowed man in black brings the evil sorceror of Swan Lake, von Rothbart, backstage, seemingly still in character. He is one of the death-like figures which haunt Bergman’s work (the archetype reaching its apogee in The Seventh Seal, of course, in which the death-like figure actually is death). Another manifestation is the old crone who crosses in front of the ballerina Marie (played by Maj-Britt Nilsson, an actress who never quite made into Bergman’s regular repertory company) as she makes her way along the old summer path to the chalet where she spent an idyllic, youthful season. Fischer frames this stooped, black-clad figure making her inexorable way across the island past the stark traceries of dead winter trees. Her brief glance back at Marie suggests a chilling sense of recognition, and a promise of a future meeting. This scene shows that Fischer was as adept at depicting the cold landscapes of winter as he was the sun-kissed shores of summer.

The illuminated face - Harriet Andersson in Summer With Monika
In the dressing-room, Fischer shoots numerous shots in which the characters are caught in reflections, whether in bulb-edged mirrors or arched, rain-speckled windows. Such reflections recur throughout his films with Bergman. In the final scene of Summer With Monika, for example, in which Harry gazes at himself holding the baby in the mirrored door of the café, and slips into a reverie of his life with Monika. Or in Smiles of a Summer Night, in which Gunnar Bjornstrand’s pompous lawyer’s vainglorious strut alongside the relaxed saunter of Eva Dahlbeck’s worldly actress is shot as reflected in a gutter puddle. Fischer manages these tricky set-ups perfectly. The close-up on Monika (towards the end of Summer With Monika) in the café where she has retreated to escape from Harry and the baby is one of a series of Fischer’s illuminated faces. He moves slowly in on her, shooting her looking directly into the camera. The background fades to a deep black, leaving just her face, holding our gaze for several moments, daring us to disapprove of her actions, her need. Similar illuminated faces can be found throughout Bergman’s work, particularly from this period. At the end of The Seventh Seal, for example, the face of Gunnel Lindblom’s mute character is illuminated with a look of rapturous expectation at the approach of death, whose shadow momentarily brushes across her upturned features. At the end of Wild Strawberries we see Isak Borg’s face looking up with beatific calm from his pillow, his dream self having found reconciliation and acceptance in the paradise of childhood memory.

The illuminated face - Gunnel Lindblom in The Seventh Seal
The three films which Fischer made with Bergman in the mid-50s (Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries) remain the director’s best-known works, and are also the most unabashedly enjoyable and beautiful to look at. Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) was a bawdy, farcical comedy whose tone Fischer set by creating light and airy interiors in which witty exchanges, comical misapprehensions and self-delusions could be played out. He had some previous experience with such comedy, the story from Waiting Women in which the husband and wife played Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Bjornstrand get stuck in a lift being a choice slice of witty byplay in the manner of the Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn movies. For the climactic midsummer night’s gathering at the country house, he conjured an enchanted twilight of suspended time in which evening never quite progresses to the darkness of night.

Prayers on the terminal beach - Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal
The Seventh Seal is undoubtedly Bergman’s best-known work (it even finds its way into a Scott Walker song) and Fischer’s photography is absolutely central to its evocation of a medieval world filled with fear, darkness and intimations of imminent apocalypse. The opening shot of ominous clouds beneath which the silhouette of a hovering falcon is etched once more shows his skill at capturing meteorological atmospheres and imbuing them with resonant symbolic weight. Fischer seems to have been particularly fond of clouds, and caught their transient formations in several shots in his work with Bergman. They certainly feature in Summer Interlude, Summer With Monika and Wild Strawberries. The scenes on the shoreline which act as the film’s prologue are masterful examples of setting mood through dramatic, non-realistic lighting. The sun sinks beneath the oceanic horizon, and cliffs seem to radiate a baleful darkness. Faces stand out as luminous beacons against this pervasive gloom, whether Max von Sydow’s knight, Gunnar Bjornstrand’s squire, or the gaunt, chalky clown-face of Death, who appears suddenly and without ceremony. The white chess pieces which the knight uses in his game with Death (Death, naturally, ends up with the black pieces, commenting, with bone-dry humour, ‘very appropriate, don’t you think?’) also shine out against the backdrop of the abyssal sea, glowing with the fierce radiance of life. This really does feel like a terminal beach, the knight and his squire washed up on its shore to witness the end of all things.

Dark contrasts - Death and the knight in church
The duality between the bright natural world and the shadowed city which Fischer’s camerawork had realised in Summer Interlude and Summer With Monika is intensified in The Seventh Seal, in which exteriors and interiors are presented as distinctly different environments. The sunlit exteriors of the open coastal landscape are the domain of the company of players who represent, particularly in the form of Bibi Andersson’s Mia and Nils Poppe’s Jof, the simple joys of life. These landscapes and the light in which they are bathed are obscured by the choking clouds of incense swung from the censers of the self-flagellating penitents who groan and wail their way past the players’ performance, and by the dark forest through which they must travel to rejoin the coast road, both of which Fischer atmospherically evokes with particular lighting effects. A harsh, unforgiving glare burning through the penitent’s smoke, and a weave of shadow and dimly penetrating light for the forest. The interiors are the domain of death and are marked by the extreme contrast of blacks and whites. The church in which the knight unwittingly confesses to a duplicitous Death is full of inky shadow, with isolated details (the illuminated faces of Death and the knight, and the grille which separates them) standing out against the black void. The plague house in which the thief robs the dying and the inn at which he later turns up to torment Jof, forcing him to dance like a bear, his shadow cast by the hellish firelight in grotesque pantomimic form upon the wall, are also places in which deep darkness and depravations of the human spirit prevail. Finally, in the knight’s castle, the sputtering flames in their sconces do little to hold back the night’s shadows, and serve to outline Death’s dark silhouette, which seems to emerge or form itself from them.

Formed from shadow - Death outlined
The iconic shot from The Seventh Seal is the one which depicts the train of characters led along the ridge of a hill by Death in a final danse macabre. This once more demonstrated Fischer’s ability to improvise and swiftly adapt to circumstances. According to Bergman, they had already called it a day because of an approaching storm, and most of the actors had gone ahead and returned to their accommodation. He then spotted a dark cloud which had the perfect glowering mass for what he had in mind. Fischer’s love of filming clouds found its ultimate expression, and he quickly set up the camera to catch this one whilst it was still in place. Instead of the actors, ‘a few grips and a couple of tourists danced in their place, having no idea what it was all about. The image that later became famous of the Dance of Death beneath the dark cloud was improvised in only a few minutes’.

Flocking thoughts - Isak dreams
The third of the great Bergman films on which Fischer worked was Wild Strawberries, in which he got to work with silent film master Victor Sjostrom, who plays the protagonist, elderly professor Isak Borg. Sjostrom’s expressionist masterpieces The Wind and The Phantom Carriage certainly exerted an influence on both Bergman and Fischer. In Wild Strawberries, Fischer employs expressionistic distortion in the dream sequences which punctuate the realistic flow of the narrative. In the example which opens the film, he eschews the characteristic expressionist use of shadows and jagged angles in favour of a harsh, over-exposed mid-day glare, in which contrasts become hazy and objects lose their defining edges. A later sequence contains an effective transition from waking to dream states in which Fischer once more employs the technique whereby the background fades out behind a character’s face, this time in the superimposed form of a dissolve. Borg is resting his head on the car window, the landscape passing by outside. As he drifts into sleep, this fades away, shading into darkness, and is replaced by the image of a night tree, its stark branches etched darkly against the sky, towards which birds noisily flock. It’s an effective image of the restless state of Borg’s mind. The jagged outlines of bare trees provide the requisite expressionist angles, as they do in a later scene, in which Fischer places such a bare branch in the foreground, slashing across the screen. Such branches and bleak, denuded trees feature in others of his films with Bergman, providing an externalised representation of souls in winter.

Summer meadows of memory - Wild Strawberries
The journey across Sweden which provides the film’s form allows Fischer to frame more Nordic landscapes, with summer forests, lakes and meadows (and clouds, of course). The sun-dappled glades of childhood memory are beautifully evoked with a slightly unreal light suggesting a certain amount of editing for Edenic perfection in Borg’s mind. The recollected interiors of his childhood summer home are bright and sun-filled, composed of various shades of white (as are the costumes which the members of his family wear). In these scenes, Fischer successfully recreates the idyllic depictions of Swedish home life painted by Carl Larsson at the turn of the century. Borg’s final dream of reconciliation and human connection leaves us with another of Fischer’s illuminated faces, as mentioned above. Sjostrom’s beatific expression as he looks across the bay of his remembered childhood is a wonderfully understated piece of acting perfectly captured by Fischer’s camera. Nothing needs to be said, the image articulates the moment in a manner beyond words.

Expressionist angles - The Magician
The Magician (1958) emphasised the gothic strain in Bergman’s work which had been so evident in The Seventh Seal (and which would again come to the fore in Hour of the Wolf). Max von Sydow’s travelling 19th century illusionist Albert Vogler (Vogler being a mane used repeatedly by Bergman for his artist characters) and his wife Manda (Ingrid Thulin) both dress in black, Manda initially disguised as a young man. Von Sydow even died his hair and beard black for the role, completing the goth look. Fischer got to use the whole range of expressionist horror techniques in the climactic scene in the attic. Here, the aggressively sceptical Dr Vergerus (Gunnar Bjornstrand) prepares to carry out an autopsy on the body of Vogler, who appears to have been murdered. The attic is a jumble of expressionistic clutter, an unruly assemblage of off-kilter angles, oversized clocks and tilted mirrors. Fischer uses the suggestive shadows to summon spectres, with hands reaching out from the between wooden slats (as in Night of the Living Dead and Bedlam) and Vogler’s pale, deathly face manifesting in shafts of moonlight. Reflections appear and disappear in the fly-specked, rust-veiled mirrors and objects are imbued with a pregnant sense of imminent animation. It’s a miniature distillation of the essence of early horror film, channelling the spirits of Murnau, Leni, Wiene and Whale.

Larsson summers - Wild Strawberries
Fischer’s last film with Bergman was The Devil’s Eye, another bawdy and farcical comedy with a fantastical edge, which hopped between modern-day Sweden and a rather well-appointed Hell. It’s reasonably enjoyable, but fails to hit the high spots of Smiles of a Summer Night. It was a minor note on which to part. Bergman had given Fischer a public dressing down early on in the production, criticising him for what he perceived as a minor lighting fault during a view of the day’s rushes. Fischer was hurt by such discourteous treatment after all this time, and Bergman subsequently apologised, but it was a sign that their partnership was nearing its end. Bergman had worked with Sven Nykvist as his cameraman on The Virgin Spring prior to making The Devil’s Eye, Fischer having been unavailable. Jerry Vermilye, in his book on Bergman, claims that he had made a commitment to work on a film for Disney, although I can’t find any indication as to which it might have been. Bergman and Nykvist had worked together some years before on Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), but they really hit it off on The Virgin Spring, and a strong artistic bond was formed. Bergman further soured his relationship with Fischer by telling him that he had been spoiled by working with Nykvist. Such remarks as these and the criticisms mentioned above seemed designed to promote a rift and force the relationship towards a swift end. Bergman is hardly generous in his acknowledgement of Fischer’s contribution to his development as a film maker and his instrumental role in creating some of his greatest films and most memorable images. He barely gets a mention either in his autobiography The Magic Lantern or in his survey of his own oeuvre Images: My Life in Film. Nykvist, on the other hand, is singled out for fulsome praise and portrayed as an artistic soul mate. Nykvist was a brilliant cinematographer, but he built on and added to a reputation which Bergman had already established alongside Fischer. Bergman could have done with giving this a little more acknowledgement.

Midsummer night's games - Harriet Andersson and Ake Fridell in Smiles of a Summer Night
Bergman’s split with Fischer marked a turning point in his development. With Nyvist, he would turn increasingly inward, focussing on the spiritual and emotional crises of individuals (often artists) in the modern world. After The Devil’s Eye he embarked on his ‘faith’ trilogy: Through A Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence, stripped down in terms of sets, cast, plot and, in the end, language. This is the point at which the stereotyped image of Bergman’s films as being relentlessly bleak and hopeless begins to set in. There was less of a focus on nature, which was increasingly reduced to an elementary and stark representational form (as with the jagged outline of the tree seen through the window in Winter Light). Bergman eventually found his ideal setting in what others might consider the rather bleak surrounds of the island of Faro, on which he eventually set up home. Interiors were predominant in the films of this new period, and Nykvist’s camera focussed closely on the faces of Bergman’s regular cast of actors, observing their every nuance and reaction (a stylistic preoccupation acknowledged in the title of the 1976 film Face to Face).

Beatific visage - Isak finds contentment
Nevertheless, Fischer was the cameraman who established the look of the first half of Bergman’s career, helping him when he was struggling to find an identity, and guiding him towards his worldwide success. Happily, there seems to have been no lingering ill-feeling between Bergman and Fischer. In the year following The Devil’s Eye, Fischer was filming another light-hearted Bergman script, The Pleasure Garden, under a different director. He also returned to work with Bergman himself one more time, shooting the title of the 1971 film The Touch. Fischer may be gone, but the torch has been passed on. His sons Jens and Peter, the children of his 67 year marriage to Gull Soderblom, are both now established cinematographers.

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