Thursday, June 23, 2011

Gunnar Fischer

Reading the William Grimes’s Times obit of Gunnar Fischer, the cinematographer who worked with Bergman on Smiles of a Summer Night, The Magician, The Seventh Seal, and Wild Strawberries, one passes through a pantheon of names that underscores the film-historical roots of Bergman’s craft  (“Gunnar Fischer, Cinematographer for Bergman, Dies at 100, NYT, 6/13/11). Svensk Filmindustri—the very words send shivers down the spine of those who remember the credit sequences of the great Bergman films. (Janus Films was the other signpost, though now Bergman is distributed by the more prosaic sounding Criterion.) According to Grimes, “It was there [Svensk Filmindustri] that Mr. Fischer had trained under Julius Jaenzon, the cinematographer for the silent films of Victor Sjostrom and Mauritz Stiller, and had developed his high-contrast, often expressionistic approach to lighting that suited Mr. Bergman’s intensely probing psychological films.” The accompanying image for the obit is the famous still from The Seventh Seal in which Max von Sydow plays chess with Death (a scene that Woody Allen would later parody in his “Death KnocksNew Yorker piece). Grimes goes on to point out that Fischer was “an admirer of Gregg Toland, the cinematographer on ‘Citizen Kane’”—a significant bit of cinema scholarship. More importantly at Filmstaden, the studio of Svensk Filmindustri, Fischer worked with the important Danish Director Carl Dreyer, whose The Passion of Joan of Arc (starring Maria Falconetti) is a classic expressionist work. The obit is an essay on what Harold Bloom called “the anxiety of influence,” minus some of the anxiety. We tend to think of Bergman as a film director whose substantive provenance derived from Strindberg, but Grimes’s obit illustrates the cinematographic provenance that enabled Bergman to create metaphors for his vision.


  1. It's interesting to note that Fischer admired Gregg Toland -- and ironic, given Bergman's remark that he found CITIZEN KANE to be one of the most boring films he'd ever seen.

  2. I see no contradiction since what we are getting at is the provenance of a visual style in the work of the collaborating cinematographer. Speaking of which we need to hit a diner. The Good Stuff on 14th is very good and even had some excitement a while back in the form of a shooting.

  3. I agree with Francis that it was Fischer's cinematic gifts that helped a young Bergman prove to himself and the world that Scandinavian movies were not just filmed plays or literary narratives but could be a new and fine art in those same traditions. We could say Sjöström and Jaenzon got things going, but Bergman and Fischer and Nykvist turned on the juice.

    ps. nice blog!


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