When you look at the photographs of Helmut Newton, with their spectacularly cold and severe Amazon-women-on-the-moon erotic shock value, and you try to imagine the man behind the camera (it’s sort of hard not to), you tend to picture him as a figure every bit as kinky and forbidding as the outrageous things he’s photographing. There’s a famous shot of Newton: the clowning-around photograph of him wearing high heels (pictured above), which only enhanced his image as a Eurotrash decadent who turned his fantasies into flesh.
But in “Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful,” an engaging and surprisingly playful documentary about the man who was arguably the most transgressive photographer to emerge from the 1960s and ’70s (and that’s saying something, since this was the grungy golden age of Larry Clark and Nan Goldin), Newton emerges as friendlier and more “normal” than you’d expect — though he does have a mischievous twinkle that suggests a lot.
The documentary was shot when Newton was in his early 80s, and he’s disarmingly ageless, with floppy thick hair and circular glasses setting off a face that grins easily in a rubbery Teutonic Leslie Nielsen sort of way. The Newton we meet is casual, funny, and direct. During a night photo shoot on the roof of the Chateau Marmont in L.A., he addresses a naked model by saying things like “There’s a kindness in your look…which is the last thing I want” and “Now don’t look poverty-stricken…look incredible!”
There’s an ambivalence — a fantastic double vision — that runs through the work of Helmut Newton, and “The Bad and the Beautiful” dives into it with captivating zeal. In the ’70s, Newton, who started out as a fashion photographer (and never stopped being one), turned commercial magazine art into a form of rough trade. He made his models into dominatrix vamp goddesses, diamond-hard and demonic in their icy surreal glamour, and in doing so he created one of the paradigmatic contemporary expressions of the male gaze.
Even as Newton controlled every aspect of his centerfold-from-hell visions, the true subject of his photographs, as rooted as they were in male fantasy, was the awesomeness of feminine power. You might say that he pushed the allure of the femme fatale to the nth degree.
In the documentary, Isabella Rossellini, who was captured by Newton in the ’80s in a haunting shot with her then-partner David Lynch (the one where he’s holding her head as if she were a puppet), describes the effect of his pictures perfectly when she says that they’re really touching the depths of a certain male fear. The photographs, she says, are saying: “I like you, damn you! I shouldn’t like you, because you’re a weapon!” Grace Jones tells a story about how Newton posed her, naked, holding a knife, and how he waited until the sunlight hit her just so, silhouetting her with prison bars, and that what he was really doing was telling a story — and then we see the image, and indeed, as brutal as it is, it’s like a still from a movie that sets the imagination on fire.
“Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful” is content, for much of its 89 minutes, to be a meditation on Newton’s work, and on that score it both reveals and celebrates him as an artist who hated “art” and “good taste,” and who pushed the envelope of a culture that was still reeling from the sexual revolution. There’s a clip of him appearing on a late-’70s French talk show along with Susan Sontag, who though clearly charmed by the man himself insists that his work is “misogynist.” At times (images of a woman wearing a saddle or being consumed by an alligator), there’s no question that it was.
Yet even as Sontag condemned his work, you could make a case that in teasing out the culture’s darker undercurrents, Newton created images that were progressive in their very danger. He revealed the lower depths of what was out there. Charlotte Rampling, who collaborated with him on a stunning series of hotel-room shots in 1973, says, “It’s great to be a provocateur. It’s what the world needs — because it stimulates thoughts, it stimulates ideas, and it stimulates all sorts of conversations.” Anna Wintour, who gave Newton a platform at Vogue, defends him as someone who bracingly undercut the rules of beauty.
The director, Gero von Boehm, interviews many of the stars and models who Newton turned into icons, and he makes catchy use of songs like Steve Harley’s “Make Me Smile” and the Cure’s “Pictures of You” (“I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you/That I almost believe that they’re real”). Mostly, he allows us to hang out with Newton at the Chateau Marmont, where he lived during the four months he spent every year in Los Angeles — and where, in 2004, he died in an automobile accident, when his car sped out of control on Sunset Boulevard just after departing the Chateau.
Though based on footage shot nearly 20 years ago, “The Bad and the Beautiful” is a very present-tense documentary. Ultimately, though, it goes back into Newton’s life, and what it finds there is the source of his perversity as well as what you might call his perverse morality. Born in Berlin in 1920, he was Jewish, which meant that when Hitler came to power Newton’s days in Germany were numbered. But before his family fled, in 1938, he apprenticed himself to Yva, the dream-vision photographer who become one of the world’s first fashion shutterbugs. (She died in a concentration camp in 1942.) Newton learned his craft from her, and also from studying the work of Leni Riefenstahl — especially “Olympiad,” in which Riefenstahl was arguably the first film artist to treat the human body as a piece of sculpture.
You could say that Newton’s obsession with tall strapping valkyrie “perfection” descended from his Teutonic background, even as he infused it with a dissolute kind of cover-girl porno chic. Yet his experience growing up also shaped him to be deadly serious about his provocations. He married his wife, June, in 1948, and in the last third of the documentary she comes into the picture, and we see what an extraordinary figure she is: a partner who was his model, muse, mother, boss, and aesthetic collaborator. Their relationship is a love duel of equals. In her highhanded way, she kept him honest. And when you see how devoted he was to her, it casts his photographs in a different light. Yes, they were his fantasies, but not in some overgrown-dirty-schoolboy way. They were who he was inside. And maybe they were a little bit of all of us too.