Bright Lights Film Journal

Fear of Darkness: Profiling Sven Nykvist in Light Keeps Me Company

Bergman’s cinematographer found more solace on the set than in real life

Cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s work with Ingmar Bergman is considered one of the key collaborations in modern cinema, and in Light Keeps Me Company, Nykvist (born 1922) gets his due and then some as an artist in his own right. This feature-length documentary, directed by his son Carl-Gustaf Nykvist, combines rare home movies, family photos, behind-the-scenes footage, excerpts from his films, and recollections from friends and coworkers for an intimate portrait of a man whose influence was crucial on both other cinematographers (Laszlo Kovacs, Vilmos Zsigmond) and directors (Jan Troell, Woody Allen).

Nykvist’s early years were unusual enough to cast an enduring shadow over his personal and professional life. The child of gung-ho missionary parents working often in the Congo, he was abandoned to a home for the children of missionaries for as long as four years at a time. In one grim sequence, Nykvist recalls his father gathering the family and saying “We’re going back to Africa. To our black children. Let us pray.” This traumatic event, and the forces behind it, arguably accounts for his later failed marriage, the suicide of his son, and perhaps his simpatico with the bleak worldview of Bergman.

Nykvist’s first job as cinematographer came in 1941, but it was 12 years later, with Sawdust and Tinsel, that he began the relationship with Bergman, an artistic coupling that would make him a legend in his field and, perhaps more importantly, give a raison d’etre to a life that desperately needed one. Nykvist, like Bergman, would find solace in the dreamily beautiful black-and-white dramas of religious alienation, failed relationships, and dark historical tableaux that would become their stock in trade.

The film sheds some welcome light on how their collaboration manifested itself, with Nykvist emerging as much more than a mere cameraman. Surprisingly, it’s the actors who are most eloquent in both analyzing Nykvist’s celebrated style and defining the Bergman-Nykvist working relationship. According to Stellan Skarsgaard, Nykvist’s manipulation of lighting was a critical factor in the look of the films, regardless of the director. “It was as though you could grab ahold of the lighting, which he had created. It was so enormously sensual, living its own life.” And Bibi Andersson dramatically describes the working methods of Nykvist and Bergman as symbiotic, neither more important than the other: “Imagine those two coming up and pointing the camera towards you. They were so concentrated on who you were to become. The air was charged! One of them used words and looks. The other, using his hands, viewed you, telling you how to move. They were a very good duo, those two.” It’s not surprising, then, when Bergman himself says that what he misses about the old days is not directing per se, but “working with Sven.”

The film, mostly reverent as one might expect from the son of the subject, drops a few gossipy tidbits: Nykvist’s affair with Mia Farrow, and his subsequent difficulty in working with Woody Allen when he saw them together; Liv Ullman’s complaint (amidst much praise) that he made her drive eight hours for a walk-on part in one of his own films; his difficulty in photographing some scenes without crying. (According to Bibi Andersson, “One eye cried, while the other was unaffected.”)

Nykvist is a difficult subject for analysis due to his extreme personal reticence, but the film manages to capture a wistfulness that borders on tragedy in a puzzling man whose relationship with Bergman and many of his other collaborators was tender during filming but nonexistent outside. Indeed, his life has all the makings of a Bergman film – violent separation from authoritarian, religious-fanatic parents; the suicide of his son; a failed marriage; and his suffering from progressive aphasia, which forced him to stop working after 123 films and many honors, including the Oscar for Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1973) and Fanny and Alexander(1981). Nykvist appears to have found solace in his professional life at the expense of the personal. Light Keeps Me Company is interwoven with quotes from his favorite book, Siddharta, whose hero Nykvist resembles in his search for an elusive ideal. Apparently he got closest to it in a luminous abstraction: “You’ve got light,” he says. “You needn’t feel alone.”