Love him or hate him, Helmut Newton will always be remembered as one of the most provocative photographers of the 20th century. Premiering last Friday in Film Forum’s virtual cinema, Gero von Boehm’s new documentary Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful examines the German artist’s massive body of work that critics often accuse of having blatantly misogynistic overtones.
The film gets a lot of things right, mainly by giving women who posed for Newton ample time to communicate their interactions with the artist. There’s a common thread here – everyone acknowledges that many of his images, on the surface, could come off as exploitative, but the subjects all seem to have had positive experiences, and many felt empowered in their own skin afterwards. Grace Jones tells an amusing story about a shoot where they had to get the lighting and shadows on her private parts just right, while Marianne Faithful discusses how working with Newton helped her release shame that came with a strict Catholic upbringing. (Worth noting, Jones also tells a somewhat troubling story about a casting process where the photographer couldn’t seem to get over her small breasts, but she laughs it off for the most part). Elsewhere, models such as Claudia Schiffer and Nadja Auermann give first-hand accounts that further contextualize their collaborations and provoke deeper conversations about artistic intent. Auermann defends some of his most controversial shots, like the famous swan photo (which drew accusations of animal cruelty and bestiality) and a series where Newton featured women in wheelchairs and crutches. The film does feel a bit lopsided and intent on only featuring voices that defend the artist – aside from a TV clip of Susan Sontag reading him to his face, von Boehm makes almost no room for detractors.
Eventually, the director lets the man speak for himself – interview footage from his famous Monaco studio and a Berlin park gives further insight into some of Newton’s most memorable photographs. Things do get a little uncomfortable in the midsection as the subject turns to the impact that growing up Nazi Germany had on his work – a gushing comparison to Leni Riefenstahl might not sit well with some people. While Newton (who was Jewish) didn’t produce images that one would call overtly racist, the film does highlight how Nazi propaganda subtly crept into some of his photos.
On a structural level, the documentary is a little messy and unfocused, and often times the interviews feel redundant. Von Bohem’s musical choices range from fabulously modern to painfully boring – Def Maniac’s “I Need You” is a welcome addition, but the filmmaker also overuses The Cure’s hit single “Pictures of You,” a music choice far too literal and obvious for a piece that has so many fascinating and intellectual conversations about one of the most controversial photographers of all time.
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful opened June 24 in virtual cinemas through Kino Marquee.
(Pic of Newton: Avalon)