Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful (2020) ****

October 16th, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir/Wri: Gero von Boehm | DoP: Sven Jakob-Engelmann | 89′

Gero von Boehm dives deep into the life and work of maverick German fashion photographer Helmut Newton (1920-2004) for a second look.

Back in the 1980s I was a great admirer of Newton’s cutting edge gaze at the female – and male – form. After a photographer boyfriend told me “you look like a Helmut Newton model” I was determined to track down this controversial man and learn more about him. Then I remember standing on the Kurfurstendamm in Berlin and watching glamorous leather-clad ladies of the night pass by all stern and supercilious with their whips and red lips. Clearly these proud professional were Newton’s disciples. And this warm tribute celebrates the subversive side of the genial provocateur who was born into a comfortable Jewish family in Berlin during the edgy Weimarer years.

Enlivened by fascinating insights from Newton himself along with his Australian wife June and numerous collaborators Gero von Boehm’s Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful discovers a man who loved women and gave them the confidence to show their bodies off in a way that was empowering, seductive and even darkly humorous – even dangerous. By the end you may have a different view of his innovative approach, considered by some to be exploitative. Look again.

Once of Newton’s challengers was feminist writer Susan Sontag, who is seen sparring with him on a French chat show calling him out on his penchant for shooting naked women (mostly in high heels) in objectified scenarios, but the disdainful expressions or steely glint in these women’s eyes tells a different story, and despite their nakedness they are proud potent Amazonians who glare out at the viewer,  and this is his talent to amuse. It was also one that earned him a great deal of money enabling him to winter in California’s luxury Chateau Marmont for over 40 years until his tragic death in January 2004.

Ironically his famous models heap him with praise. Isabella Rossellini – who considers herself a feminist – waxes lyrical about her friend recalling a famous portrait he made of her with her then-partner David Lynch. his approach seems to expose latent truths in the female (and male) psyche, after all we are all animals who love to dominate or occasionally be overpowered in the right circumstances.  And this is the essence of the sizzling sexual chemistry behind his photos. Another glowing account comes from Charlotte Rampling, who has more than a twinkle in her eye looking back on the smouldering naked portrait that helped launch her career around the time of The Night Porter.

Von Boehm then delves into Newton’s past: he was 13 when Hitler came to power, a time when Leni Riefenstahl’s athletic images of women in rigorous exercise formations were everywhere to be seen. In Australia he met his wife to be and major collaborator, June, who went on to be his art director, while honing her own craft behind the camera. It was a successful love and business partnership akin to that of Charles and Ray Eames.

Coming across as affable and also vulnerable, Newton plays up his ‘naughty boy’ image in front of the camera and seems like the sort of guy who would be charming and easygoing company. But Boehm keeps a distance from his subject in an enjoyable foray that never attempts to eulogise or condemn. Clearly Newton had a well-developed erotic imagination but his love and devotion to his wife is a clear indication that, at heart, he was a decent if decadent man. MT




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