Director Gero von Boehm’s documentary film Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful concerns itself with the life, work, and death of 1960s subversive fashion photographer Helmut Newton. I have always appreciated photography as an art form, while knowing very little about it. I took “History of Photography” as an elective in college thinking it would be easy. It was the most difficult course in the entire programme. Having written that, before watching this film, I had never heard of Helmut Newton.
In watching the doc, I was very much drawn to a lot of the man’s work. Indeed, it was technically proficient, as he had an undeniable eye for framing, negative space, light and shadow. But what struck me further was that many of his images (with a heavy dose of female nudity mind you) had a drama, a danger, and a subversive nature approaching (although to my eye never quite becoming) lurid.
That written, 2020 does seem a strange time to release this film with the #metoo movement still fully in swing. There are moments in the documentary that come across as considerably problematic. One particular shoot has the male model covered head to toe in a wetsuit and goggles, while the female model is wearing the smallest bathing suit possible. To make matters worse, Newton then says to the man (and I’m paraphrasing here), “grab her ass tighter, and if you get a hard on, we’ll pay you more”.
Further to that point, the film does take a fairly specific stance. I don’t expect documentaries to always be fair, even-handed, and provide an objective viewpoint. Some of the best docs I’ve seen are incredibly subjective, and have a very pointed thesis. But this is where Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful rubbed me the wrong way. It often seems like an apologist film, or a movie that is actively trying to renounce or discredit accusations of Newton’s work and methods for being somewhat misogynistic.
We are shown talking head interviews with models, singers and actresses including Catherine Deneuve, Marianne Faithfull, Isabella Rossellini, Charlotte Rampling, Claudia Schiffer and Grace Jones, all of whom talk about how Newton made them feel safe, confident and powerful. And if that’s the case, absolutely more power to them. As a white male born in the 80s, I am in no position to dispute or question that. The film also recognizes that the 60s were a time where women were starting to feel empowered by their bodies, rather than shunning the idea of nudity. Still, there are sequences in here that simply feel gross by today’s standards, not the least of which being Newton frequently referring to himself as a “naughty boy”.
The film further touches upon Helmut’s marriage with his wife June Newton, and his experiences as a 13-year-old Jewish kid in Germany during the holocaust. The former is endearing (and seeing the two good-naturedly bickering as married couples do is undoubtedly fun), while the latter is an unsurprisingly harrowing account.
Newton is presented as a playful artist whose work is really quite striking, and the ending of the film which deals with his death due to an automobile collision in Los Angeles in 2004 is rather sad.
Admittedly, I would have liked the film to delve a little deeper into the sociological impact of his work and methodology rather than just seemingly putting him up on an untouchable artistic pedestal, but I appreciate the movie introducing me to Newton’s work, much of which I find quite lovely.