Review: 'Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful' A Colorful, Incomplete Portrait of A Master Fashion Photographer

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday July 24, 2020

Helmut Newton
Helmut Newton  (Source:Helmut Newton)

One of the first things we hear influential fashion photographer Helmut Newton say in Gero von Boehm's vivid documentary (after his instructions to a commandingly posed nude women he tells to "don't look poverty-stricken; look incredible!") is a complaint about documentaries like this one: "The films of photographers that I've seen are terribly boring," Newton muses, as the camera follows him walking into the Hotel Chateau Marmont, where he lived during the final years of his life.

von Boehm refuses to allow that with "Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful," the decidedly not-boring filmic portrait that draws on substantial footage taken of Newton before he died in a car accident in 2004, at the age of 83. Rounding out the doc are interviews with models he worked with (Claudia Schiffer, Nadja Aukerman, and others), as well as actors and other performers who came before his lens: Charlotte Rampling recalls a session of nude photos taken around the time she made "The Night Porter" (which was released in 1974)l Maryanne Faithfull talks about shedding her inhibitions for a flesh-baring shoot; Grace Jones shares how Newton kept asking her to pose for him and then having second thoughts because he said, she wasn't busty enough. (They did eventually work together, producing some memorable images.)

Newton's blend of humor and technical skill, along with his sense of storytelling and his absolute adoration of strong women, gave his subjects a sense of power and control. "I felt good, I felt safe," one model tells the camera; Rampling reckons that Newton gave her a sense of "huge power."

Those testimonials work to dispel notions that Newton objectified women by focusing on what Anna Wintour calls the typical "Helmut woman" - "tall," "in charge," and with "a strong lipstick." Newton clearly liked to build gags into his imagery, and he clearly liked to push the envelope. It's unclear whether controversy was something he pursued or was simply a result of Newton following his own vision; the photographer himself shrugs off any concerns that others might not like or appreciate his work, and his trickster sensibilities come through as he dictates to his models. He's just as jocular with male models as with female; at one point, with a female model cupping a male model's crotch in her hand, Newton tells the man, "If you get a hard-on, all the better. You get more money!"

That said, though, we later learn what Newton thought of men in fashion photography overall: "They are accessories," one interview subject recalls him saying.

Newton's mix of eros, glamor, and drama stems, it's suggested, from his childhood. Born in Berlin in 1920 and growing up Jewish at a time when the Nazis were coming to power and posing an ever-growing, ultimately lethal danger, Newton - whose original surname was Neustädter - soaked up the images of the day, from the stylistic voluptuousness of Weimer to the hard-edged, sinister propaganda imagery of Leni Riefenstahl. Newton's father was arrested and sent to a concentration camp in 1938; luckily, he was released soon after, and the family was able to flee. While Newton's parents headed fo Argentina, Newton set sail for China. He didn't get that far; he ended up in Singapore, then made his way to Australia where he met and married his wife, actress June Browne. (She later became a photographer also, working under the name Alice Springs.)

These biographical tidbits are only sparsely included and Helmut's life apart from fashion photography is only lightly, incompletely sketched in. Helmut mentions having sons; we learn nothing more than what he tells us himself. June, who is prominently featured in the film, talks about the health problems both she and Newton faced and how Helmut used his camera as a shield against those challenges. That's fascinating information from a psychological standpoint, but it's natural to want to know more about the heart attacks Helmut suffered and how they impacted his art and career, and to hear about the surgeries that brought fresh interest to Newton when it came to his own body, and to June's.

Not that Helmut himself necessarily would have wanted to talk about these things - at least, not in the context of creativity. Newton himself declares that, for him, there are only "two dirty words: Art and Good Taste." If his japes and fixations seem a little extreme - and how else can you think about it when he confesses to a burning urge to photograph a roast chicken wearing a pair of miniature high heels? - his images are so palpably textured, so striking, and so consistently of a piece and style, that you simply have to accept him for who he was.

von Boehm proves up to the task of creating a portrait of Helmut Newton, his camera lapping up Newton's work, following him behind the scenes at various stages of his creative process, and drawing intimate, candid commentary from those he interviews. The film also draws energy from an energetic selection of songs (the use of The Cure's "Pictures of You" is a particularly inspired choice).

If you don't know about Newton, this is a fine place to start; if you're already a fan, this film might fill in a few blank spots, despite the blank spots of its own.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.