Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

 

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An opportunity to assess for yourself one of the most controversial of all photographers.

 
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful
 

Early on in this documentary by Gero von Boehm we learn how the right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen was neatly tricked when being photographed by the late Helmut Newton who died in 2004. What Newton did with Le Pen invites one to see the photographer as a man capable of creating an impression that may prove on examination to be other than what it at first seems to be. However, it is hardly surprising that Newton's work photographing politicians features so briefly because his fame, and indeed his notoriety, is centred on portraits of a very different kind. For years Newton built a reputation as a photographer of female nudes and this work of his has been met with an extraordinary diversity of opinion. That split is all the more intriguing because it is not a case of reactions simply depending on the sex of the viewer.

 

I have read a number of widely divergent reviews of this film and from them I have the impression that those who hate Newton's pictures feel compelled to condemn this film because it does not argue the case for Newton being a misogynist regardless of his declarations to the contrary. What the film does choose to do is to devote its first half to examples of his work and to observations about them before turning to a survey of his life from his birth in Berlin in 1920 to his death eighty-four years later in Los Angeles caused by a car crash. In the process much use is made of footage taken some twenty years ago of Newton reminiscing, but Gero von Boehm's approach is to show rather than to interpret and thus to leave it to the individual viewer to draw his or her own conclusions.

 

This stance yields a fascinating film because nothing is cut and dried about Newton and his pictures. It is undeniable that his female nudes show us strong and powerful women yet disturbing details that range from feet shackled by chains to the presence of a dead chicken are not infrequently introduced. Newton called himself a provocateur and spoke out against good taste: some of that can be explained by the fact that he grew up in the 1930s and was consequently a child of Berlin and of the freedoms it embraced in that decade. If that serves as an explanation, that is not to say that it is necessarily a justification and we do see a brief TV clip of Newton being denounced in no uncertain terms by Susan Sontag. Nevertheless, this film features many women who posed for him and who speak of the experience in very positive terms.

 

Those who speak up supportively include among many others Charlotte Rampling, Grace Jones and Hanna Schygulla. Isabella Rossellini is particularly astute and persuasive in suggesting that these portraits express the erotic appeal that Newton found in women but also his fear of their power over him. Using the camera put him in charge and was thus a protection, but it is striking that none of his subjects seems to have felt anything but safe in his presence. Furthermore, after fleeing from Germany in 1938 (Newton was Jewish), he would find a wife in Australia: June Newton, also a photographer and a strong figure in her own right, is another memorable presence in this film and her experience of him adds another layer to our assessment of this intriguingly complex man. Putting the subject matter to one side for a moment, his photography clearly shows Newton to have been an artist, but as it turns out the most haunting photograph in the film was not by him but by June and it is an image of the two of them together taken when he was dying.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Helmut Newton, Isabella Rossellini, Charlotte Rampling, Grace Jones, Anna Wintour, Hanna Schygulla, Claudia Schiffer, Marianne Faithfull, Nadja Auermann, Phyllis Posnick, Carla Sozzini, June Newton.

 

Dir Gero von Boehm, Pro Felix von Boehm, Screenplay Gero von Boehm, Ph Sven Jakob-Engelmann, Pierre Nativel, Uli Fischer and others, Ed Tom Weichenheim.

 

Lupa/Monarda Arts/MK2/ZDF/3SAT-Blue Finch Releasing.
89 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 23 October 2020. Available on Curzon Home Cinema
and on digital download. Cert. 15.