Review: Helmut Newton : The Bad and the Beautiful
- Gero von Boehm signs his name to a fascinating documentary about a controversial figure in the history of fashion photography, typical of the paradoxes of creativity
A voyeur? An aesthete? A pervert? An anarchist? A sexist? A subversive? A misogynist? "Known for his photos of statuesque, provocative, domineering women" and an international fashion magazine star for almost three decades, Helmut Newton, who was born in Berlin in 1920 and who died in Los Angeles in 2004, availed himself of an array of fantasy-based imagery in his work, rooted in nudity and rather trashy situations which make for uncomfortable viewing in today’s #MeToo era, but which were also a source of controversy back at the height of his fame. For example, on the set of the French TV programme Apostrophes in 1979, and in response to the photographer’s claim to “love women”, the American writer Susan Sontag retorted: "the master adores his slave, the torturer adores his victim. Lots of misogynists claim to love women, yet they show humiliating images of them." But when we’re taking about creativity, it’s not quite so clear-cut (because no-one can dispute the quality, singularity and power of the photographer’s works), and it’s precisely this shady zone which the German documentary-maker Gero von Boehm explores in Helmut Newton : The Bad and the Beautiful [+see also:
interview: Gero von Boehm
film profile], a work unveiled in Tribeca and presented within the Hauteur section of the 12th Les Arcs Film Festival (Digital Off-Piste edition), ahead of its French release in 2021 courtesy of KMBO.
Chains, maids and whips, a wheelchair, a girl lying backwards over a desk or half-eaten by a crocodile, hands decorated with millions of dollars’ worth of jewels stripping meat from a chicken on a table; always these bodies are in a state of undress, captured in imperious poses and characterised by a striking play of light and shadow… The hand of Helmut Newton is unmistakeable. "It was incredible that he was accepted by the industry, because he was more dangerous, ambiguous and frightening than a Richard Avedon or an Irving Penn", muses Isabella Rossellini, who posed for the photographer. "But it was the 1960s, the sexual revolution, a time when society was accepting of nudity after it had been taboo for so long. Nudity is also temptation, fear, embarrassment..." A world of all things forbidden which Newton dipped into, endowing his works with a highly provocative dark humour and an intentionally disturbing eroticism. Paradoxically, his most remarkable models of the time (notably Charlotte Rampling, Grace Jones, Marianne Faithfull and Hanna Schygulla) insist it made them feel strong ("I was in control of the situation, I wasn’t the deer anymore, I was on equal terms with the hunter", explains Madja Auermann) and they say these works were a reflection of their time. Are we looking at cases of Stockholm syndrome? Were these shocking images a result of suggestive manipulation? Perhaps. Or are they simply a product of the audacity that comes with morally unencumbered artistic freedom?
The documentary leaves it to the audience to decide, but it pushes the investigation further, looking back at Newton’s younger years in Berlin, the influence of expressionism which was in vogue under the Weimar Republic, but also his admiration for the work of Leni Riefenstahl (the official filmmaker for the Nazi movement which glorified bodily perfection) "mixed with a heightened sense of danger because he was Jewish". It was "a strange time", which would leave an indelible mark on Newton’s future works. He fled Germany in 1938 and made for Trieste, before moving on to Singapore and then finally Australia where he met his wife, June, who remained by his side for the rest of his life.
A captivating documentary (the first hour especially) which is rich in both substance and form (including a multitude of spectacular photos by Newton, historical video archives, live footage of the artist at work, interviews and more. ), Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful succeeds in piecing together a portrait which reflects a level of complexity that goes beyond good and bad, to a zone where each of us judges inspiration by our own particular standards.
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