SPRAGGETT ON CHESS
Legendary cinematographer dies at age 100
The Seventh Seal (1957). Who of my generation does not swear by this classic?
Ingmar Bergman (right) and Gunnar Fischer (left) were to cinema in the 1950’s what Lennon and McCartney were to music in the 1960’s. They collaborated on a dozen films, including the classic ‘The Seventh Seal’. Bergman set the tone but Gunnar set the mood with his unique manipulation of light featuring sharp contrasts and deep blackness. As all extraordinary partnerships, it lasted a short while, and they went their separate ways after making their last film in 1960. Fischer died earlier this month in a nursing home in Stockholm at age 100, more than half a century later.
Capturing the perfect moment
Jun 20, 2011
Cloaked in a black hood, the pale and dispassionate face of Death himself is framed by stormy skies. In front of the shadowy figure is a chess board and an opponent who is about to play for his life. The black-and-white image from the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 masterwork, The Seventh Seal, remains one of the most enduring in the history of cinema. Gunnar Fischer, the cinematographer who captured it and added depth and intensity to 12 of Bergman’s films, died at the age of 100 in Stockholm earlier this month.
“Fischer’s great skill was in monochrome,” the Bergman scholar Peter Cowie told The Washington Post. “He gave Bergman’s films that unique expressionistic look, with their brilliant contrasts in every gradation of black and white.”
But despite being responsible for groundbreaking cinematography such as this, Fischer’s death did not prompt a flood of tributes from world cinema luminaries and was reported only by a handful or publications.
The oversight can be chalked up to one of the film world’s longest-standing injustices; that of the perennially overlooked cinematographer.
Most people with only a passing interest in movies will probably be able to name a dozen or more directors. Some may even recall the names of a few film-score composers. But how many cinematographers would they be able to identify? And how many could explain what the job actually entails?
According to the American Society of Cinematographers, it is “a creative and interpretive process that culminates in the authorship of an original work of art rather than the simple recording of a physical event. Cinematography is not a subcategory of photography. Rather, photography is but one craft that the cinematographer uses.”
Put even more simply, the cinematographer (or director of photography) works to ensure that the director’s artistic vision is captured in the camera, with appropriate use of lighting, lenses, exposure, filters and even film stock selection.
Fischer credited the deep-focus, high-contrast aesthetic of Orson Welles’s classic Citizen Kane as his greatest source of inspiration. In the film, Welles and the cinematographer Gregg Tolland made revolutionary use of tight apertures so that the foreground, middle and background of an image would all appear to be in focus.
Orson Wells (left) in Citizen Kane (1941)
Although The Seventh Seal remains their best-known collaboration, Fischer and Bergman’s first film together was the 1948 drama Port of Call. Their other works include Wild Strawberries, Summer Interlude, Monika and The Magician, as well as nine television commercials that Bergman directed for a soap company between 1951 and 1953.
“Sometimes Fischer intentionally overexposed the film to achieve a hallucinatory or dreamlike effect, as in Wild Strawberries,” wrote Ronald Bergan in The Guardian. “The shift from past to present, from memory to reality to dream, is signified by sharp contrasts in light.”
Before his film career began, the cinematographer studied painting in Copenhagen and wrote and illustrated children’s books. In an interview with The Washington Post, Fischer said he and Bergman came to an early agreement never to become each other’s “bowing servants”.
“We were never to praise each other or to give compliments about what we read in the newspaper. We were critical and could always speak our minds,” he said.
Although it is not known why, the artistic relationship fell apart after the making of 1960’s The Devil’s Eye.
“We had had a very good collaboration for many years,” Fischer told Thames Television. “I made 12 films with him. But on the last one…we began to part.”
The brooding, death-obsessed genius Bergman followed Fischer’s departure by embarking on another long-standing director/cinematographer relationship, with the fellow Swede Sven Nykvist.
Two of their collaborations, Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander won Nykvist the the Academy Award for Best Cinematography.
He was also credited with helping to move Bergman’s films into less theatrical territory, by capturing a greater sense of realism in the images.
Until the mid-1970s, Fischer continued to work in movies, before becoming a lecturer on film lighting. He admitted that his separation from Bergman was “most likely [because the director] thought Sven Nykvist was a better photographer.”
Although Fischer missed out on the awards recognition that his successor received working with Bergman, his achievements on one of the most highly acclaimed European films in history, The Seventh Seal, would be reward enough for most.
Over the years, his timeless image of Death embroiled in a chess match gained sufficient fame to warrant parody. It was first sent up in the 1968 short film The Dove, with the game of chess replaced by badminton, and decades later in the Hollywood comedy Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, with the Grim Reaper forced to compete at the games Twister and Battleship.