'Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful': Film Review

Courtesy of Kino Lorber
A refreshingly nuanced look at work that inspires snap judgments.
7/24/2020

Gero von Boehm takes a second look at the life and work of controversial fashion photographer Helmut Newton.

A fascinating read on the career of an artist whose always-controversial work may look even more problematic to youngsters encountering it here for the first time, Gero von Boehm's Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful both delights in its hero's troublemaking side and urges viewers to look beyond his pictures' surface sexual politics. Benefiting from ample interview footage shot before the fashion photographer's 2004 death, the doc offers a warm and approachable take on Newton's cold, aggressive aesthetic. It's one of those rare docs that might change minds about its subject's merits, or at least make minds willing to accommodate alternative points of view.

Newton, known for shooting naked women in often degrading or objectified scenarios, is frequently labeled a misogynist — a position taken here by Susan Sontag, seen briefly alongside Newton on a French talk show. This film is well underway before a viewer realizes that one of Gero von Boehm's ways of addressing this reputation is to speak only to women (with the exception of Newton himself), and mostly to women who were the models in those infamous pictures.

All describe a man who treated them with respect — which of course does not in itself prove he wasn't using them to make woman-hating work. Isabella Rossellini presents one of the film's most nuanced takes on the photographer, first recalling a famous portrait he made of her with her then-partner David Lynch. Newton's camera saw Lynch as a man using a woman as the mere repository for his vision, at which point one thinks of a pot, a kettle and name-calling. But as she goes on (after pointing out that she sees herself as a feminist), Rossellini seems to welcome the unsettling truths Newton exposes about sexual attraction, and the way involuntary desire can provoke unacknowledged anger.

Other of Newton's models share more familiar, not always convincing arguments about empowerment — it's easier to feel empowered when Vogue is paying you well to be tied up for the camera — or point out how Newton's models can be naked from head to toe (well, except for the obligatory high heels) while remaining more powerful than the viewer. Charlotte Rampling, looking back on portraits that helped shape her public persona around the time of The Night Porter, makes some of the doc's most thoughtful observations about the dynamic between model and portraitist.

Von Boehm waits until the film's midpoint to introduce any possible biographical origins of Newton's aesthetic. A German Jew who was 13 when Hitler came to power, he was surrounded by the idealized notions of beauty sold by Leni Riefenstahl; he escaped to Singapore, then to Australia, but continued to see Riefenstahl as a genius. The film leaves it to viewers to ponder any connections between beauty, subjugation and violence that might arise from this formative influence.

Whatever horrors his subconscious might've held, Newton is quite good company in his easygoing interviews with von Boehm, and was an intimate collaborator with his wife of many decades, June Newton. June worked as Helmut's art director, but developed a photography career of her own as well. A fortuitously timed exhibition pairing work by both allows the film to explore their domestic partnership through candid pictures that range from funny to heartbreaking.

Never intending to rationalize away the seedier aspects of Newton's work, the film hopes instead to make us recognize the humor and inventiveness lurking there as well — and to persuade us that an artist's unruly erotic imagination doesn't necessarily tell us much about what he thinks of women.

Production company: Lupa Film
Distributor: Kino Marquee (Available in virtual cinemas)
Director-screenwriter: Gero von Boehm
Producer: Felix von Boehm
Director of photography: Sven Jakob-Engelmann
Editor: Tom Weichenhain

89 minutes