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Five Cent Cine (At Home): Helmut Newton – The Bad and the Beautiful

Not such a bad boy

This hagiographic documentary of the famed fashion and celebrity photographer Helmut Newton is based on interviews with him and his wife, and on uniformly positive interviews with the women who posed naked for him for sexy, stylized—some would say erotic–photos (“Men,” he said, “are accessories”).  Actress Charlotte Rampling describes herself as a participant in Newton’s creative process, which gave her a feeling of “huge power.” Though Newton says he cared about “face, breasts, and legs” rather than the inner being of the woman he was photographing, singer Marianne Faithfull says, “he captured my soul.” Another model recalls how being photographed naked by Newton made her “strong” and emphasized his “respect” for her. Jamaican model and singer Grace Jones, whose photo of her chained, naked black body is perhaps the most discomforting of the images presented, laughs as she calls Newton “a little bit of a pervert” whose work was “always in beautiful taste.”

“In beautiful taste” hardly seems an apt description of Newton’s black-and-white photographs of nude or semi-nude women, most of them tall, thin, and big-breasted, in a variety of disturbing positions: one model in a wheelchair and on crutches, another eating raw meat, another with an enormous (artificial) swan in her bed, and one whose torso and head are inside the body of a stuffed reptile.

Editor Anna Wintour, who published many of Newton’s photos in Vogue, valued his work for its shock value, as a “stopper” that would cut against the “visions of loveliness” for which her magazine was known.

In one of its few attempts to explore the sources of Newton’s vision, the film appropriately links his work to the transgressive expressionism of the Weimar era, when Newton, born in 1920, was a boy in Berlin, and to that of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, whose productions for Nazi Germany glorified the (male) body. A Jew, Newton fled Germany in 1938.

The documentary is equally hagiographic in its depiction of Newton, a self-described “naughty boy,” as charming: jocular, funny, open, playful, sufficiently humble to credit a two-year apprenticeship with Yva (who died in a concentration camp in 1942) with teaching him to use a camera, occasionally insecure (using his camera as a shield), and a good husband and faithful companion to fellow photographer June, who calls him “Helmy.” Although he admired the female body and photographed many women without clothes, he seems never to have been tempted or strayed—apparently not even guilty of Jimmy Carter’s “lust in my heart.” Nor does he come across as brilliant but abusive in the way of Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry. In other words, this portrait of him hardly seems entirely believable. Given his body of work and the power he held (he could make your reputation as a model, says Jones), it seems unlikely that none of his subjects felt used in this unequal power dynamic.

Through these interviews (there is no voice-over, no authoritative narrator), Newton is also presented as an obsessive, creative genius.

Through these interviews (there is no voice-over, no authoritative narrator), Newton is also presented as an obsessive, creative genius. Obsessive, surely. He was meticulous in positioning his subjects; good photos, he notes, require “hard work” and “pain.” He was obsessive, too, in shaping a body of work that is instantly identifiable as Helmut Newton. Yet there’s a sameness to his staged photographs that suggests his creativity took place within a frame, a frame that emerged from deep in his consciousness (or unconsciousness) and functioned as much to confine and limit him as it did to “open [him] to the world,” as Wintour puts it.

We first saw Newton’s work in Bologna, Italy in 1989.  We brought home the exhibit’s poster, had it framed, and today it hangs in our Buffalo apartment. The poster features Newton, a large video camera to his eye, hovering over the body of a blond woman, naked except for high heels, her pelvis thrust towards him. For Dianne, the photograph (which is, of course, not by Newton but was certainly staged by him) is about power and aggression, and it is threateningly (rather than consensually) sexual. The 24-year-old girlfriend of our son, who saw the same show, returned from it upset and angry, recounting several photographs that featured a woman with a gun in her mouth, and another with the same woman with an ecstatic smile as a man appears to tighten a chain around her neck.

You won’t see any of these photographs in German documentarian Gero von Boehm’s 93-minute film, nor, except for some comments by feminist photographer and essayist Susan Sontag—who disliked Newton’s photographs for their misogyny, objectification, and humiliation of women—will you hear much criticism of the man or his work, as controversial as it has been over the years. Newton died in 2004.

The film’s subtitle apparently refers to the “beautiful” bodies Newton photographed and to the “bad” boy who did the work. Unfortunately, there’s little “bad” in von Boehm’s documentary; one can speculate that had something to do with the participation of the Helmut Newton Foundation. This potentially fascinating subject comes across, reputation intact, as a one-dimensional good guy.  Not, perhaps, what Helmut Newton would have wanted—or deserves.

Date: 2020

Director: Gero von Boehm

Starring: Helmut Newton, June Newton, Charlotte Rampling, Maryann Faithfull, Grace Jones, Anna Wintour, Claudia Schiffer, Isabella Rossellini

3 stars (out of 4 stars)

Country: USA

Languages: English; some German and French (subtitled in English)

Runtime: 93 minutes

Availability: For rent or purchase, Google Play, Apple TV, YouTube and Vudu. See JustWatch here.

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Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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