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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Perverse, erotic, debasing, and powerful, fashion photographer Helmut Newton’s photographs throughout the 20th century displayed a worship of women similar to a domineering male director and his female star. That’s very much how the German-Australian Newton perceived his mainly female subjects, and Gero von Boehm’s new documentary spends the majority of its running time talking to those women, whom Newton clearly idolized. It’s a striking lineup of talking heads: Grace Jones, Charlotte Rampling, Claudia Schiffer, Marianne Faithfull, Hanna Schygulla, and Anna Wintour, among others. While the things many of them were asked to do as objects of the Newton gaze seem extreme by today’s standards — often involving sadomasochistic acts of sexual expression and explicit, if tasteful, nudity — these women all adored him. The interviews and remembrances make for a reverential but vivid dive into the career of the 20th century’s most iconoclastic fashion photographer, who died in a car crash in 2004 in front of the starry Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood.
Born in Weimar-era Berlin, Newton came of age in Nazi-occupied Germany. Arguably Newton’s biggest influence was Leni Riefenstahl, the German director hired to create highly stylized Nazi propaganda that idealized white, blonde, athletic German bodies. While Newton, and the rest of the world, came to understand the problematic roots of Riefenstahl’s compositions, he couldn’t deny their aesthetic prowess, and her eye cast a light over his work all his life. Fashion houses knew what they were getting when they commissioned a Newton photo. “You’re not going to get a pretty girl on a beach,” Anna Wintour says in an interview.
The documentary’s most heartfelt through-line traces Helmut’s adoring relationship with his wife, June Newton, who became an equal collaborator with her husband in the back half of his career. While the film is hardly as transgressive as its subject, it manages to be unexpectedly moving, and a nostalgic time capsule of an art-world rebel whose unorthodox methods and decidedly politically incorrect vision couldn’t exist today.