The iconic fashion, art and portrait photographer Helmut Newton (1920-2004) described himself, half-dismissively, as “a professional voyeur.” Elaborating, he said “I photograph a body, a face, legs…”
Always women. Typically nude. Often provocatively posed and photographed.
One of his favorite models, Grace Jones, cackles when she remembers that “He was a little bit pervert, but so am I!”
She hastens to add words that others in the new documentary, “Helmut Newton: The Bad & the Beautiful,” echo — “Never vulgar. NEVER vulgar.”
Another actress/model who came under his gaze, Isabella Rossellini, sees “an attraction to and anger towards” his subjects. The fashion editor Anna Wintour notes how he found “a type,” the “Helmut Newton woman,'” “tall, blonde, lots of lipstick.”
Thin, young and inutterably gorgeous kind of goes without saying.
German TV director Gero von Boehm plays snippets of Newton interviews, on camera and for radio, in the film. He opens with a challenge Newton gave him, basically from the grave.
Photographers “”are terribly boring people,” Newton confesses. Movies about them? “Terribly boring” too.
Director von Boehm paints a layered portrait of an artist who might very well be “boring” compared to the image we developed of Newton from his photos — oversexed, perverse, devouring the most beautiful women in fashion and film with his camera.
Then we watch him work — “Give me ATTITUDE.” We see the icy glares, the malevolent stares. Model after model talks about how “strong” and in control he made them feel, even nude, even at the tender ages many models achieve success in their profession.
And Rosellini speaks of how “in control” on the set Newton’s wife, June (seen and heard here, too) was, while Helmet “got to play with his toys,” joke around and keep the models at ease.
Newton cracked to an earlier interviewer that “I’m not going to tell you all that,” the full story of his life, his passions, phobias and romances. He was saving that “for people who have more money than you.”
But von Boehm uses old interviews, still photos and archival footage to tell the story of a German Jew whose artistic aesthetic was formed in the Weimar (decadent, expressionist) and Nazi Germany (fascist idealization of the human body) he grew up in.
We hear about his mentor, his influences, his escape to China and then Australia (where he met June).
And we get an idea of how he held onto that aesthetic until, in the late ’70s, it came into vogue and “Vogue.”
Throughout, the master comes off as more playful than Annie Leibowitz or Herb Ritts, with something of the Robert Mapplethorpe “provocateur” about him.
We see him work — shoots with Sigourney Weaver and whatever model was that week’s “fresh new face.” And Jones and others marvel at him realizing this or that truth about “the light” and shadows and “message” he was getting across, waiting until that perfect moment when his vision became (thanks to the shifting sun, often) his reality.
The emphasis here in on the nudity and art photography, but there’s just enough of the portraiture to tell us he had that Leibowitz eye for the essence of his subject — right wing French political leader (unknowingly posed, with his Dobermans, the way Hitler was photographed with his German shepherd) or ’60s icon turned grand dame of pop, Marianne Faithful.
It’s a fun, generally brisk biography, one whose tone might be the artist’s credo. Newton declared that there are “only two dirty words” in any of the three languages he spoke — “art” and “good taste.” He never let either limit what he was trying to say.
And 15 years after his death, who’s to say those words don’t apply to his most daring shots?
MPAA Rating: unrated, nudity
Cast: Helmut Newton, June Newton, Grace Jones, Charlotte Rampling, Marianne Faithful, Hanna Schygulla, Anna Wintour, Claudia Schiffer and Isabella Rossellini.
Credits: Directed by Gero von Boehm. A Kino Lorber release.
Running time: 1:22