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Gero von Boehm • Director of Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

“Helmut Newton wanted to show strong women”


- We talked to the director of Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful, Gero von Boehm, who in turn talked to Grace Jones, Isabella Rossellini and Charlotte Rampling

Gero von Boehm  • Director of Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful
Director Gero von Boehm, as photographed by Helmut Newton himself

In his documentary Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful [+see also:
film review
interview: Gero von Boehm
film profile
– world-premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, now moving online – Gero von Boehm takes on a man who spent his life looking, not being looked at: legendary fashion photographer Helmut Newton, known for generating controversy but also genuine affection, as recounted by his stunning collaborators.

Cineuropa: “Most photographers are terribly boring, and most films about photographers are terribly boring, too,” says Newton in the film. How do you keep on going after hearing something like this?
Gero von Boehm: I knew that he wasn’t boring at all and that he didn’t consider himself as such. We met in Paris some time around 1997, and a real friendship came out of it, which was one of the reasons why he was so open in these interviews. He was relaxed like a little boy – there was this playful side to him, which made everything easy. Still, as a filmmaker, you have to keep your distance. You have to go back to the times before the friendship. But I knew what I would get, that’s for sure, although some of these questions I actually asked for the very first time. It was the same with the women I talked to. They all loved Helmut and they were very close, but they kept some distance as well.

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In 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, Kirk Douglas played a charismatic man who alienates everyone he loves, which is not the case here, as despite all the controversy, Newton’s collaborators still defend his vision.
It had nothing to do with that film, but I thought that “bad” and “beautiful” summed up the reception of his photography. These two extremes had to be in the title. His vision wasn’t so simple though, you know? It wasn’t just about the nudity and the sex – he wanted to show strong women, women who don’t need haute couture, just like in this famous diptych he created [Sie Kommen (Naked and Dressed)]. You had them fully clothed and then nude, standing in the same position. As [model] Sylvia Gobbel said, even naked, they are strong. With Helmut, it was never just about the photographs. There was a message, a story. It activated my fantasies: what happened before, or after? Who are these people? Irving Penn or Avedon, or Peter Lindbergh, they did that, too, but not like Helmut. Now, it’s more about the clothes than the story, and that’s why we should continue to look at his work. We shouldn’t apply censorship to it – it would be ridiculous, as Charlotte Rampling points out.

It’s almost as if he was trying to find people who would appreciate his sense of humour. Like Grace Jones, who says: “Yes, he was a bit pervert. But so am I, so it’s ok.”
We are heading towards political correctness, even in fashion photography. But Helmut loved it when his photographs were criticised; he wanted to be talked about. So maybe he would have enjoyed it? One purpose of this film is to show his work again, to give people a chance to make up their own minds, because nobody would dare to do now what he was doing back then. Still, it’s something we need to talk about: did photos like that foster things like #MeToo or enable male aggression? Isabella [Rossellini] said that Helmut photographed women like Leni Riefenstahl photographed men. We should remember this line. That’s why I wanted to include these women – only women. I was curious to hear what they saw.

Which brings us to the fact that it’s not just a film about his work; it’s also about his relationship with his wife, June. You seem to find it very important.
Without June, he would never have achieved what he did. She gave his life structure, and she was his most valued critic. June was a known photographer [as Alice Springs], exhibiting in Paris and New York. It gave her strength to be in the background of his work, to lead this “double life”. Once, she said: “You know, my portrait of David Hockney was much better than Helmut’s.” And she was right!

As Anna Wintour says, June was a bit like his mother. And he always remained a little boy, influenced by Berlin and those early years, the whole Nazi imagery, which marked him deeply – or, yes, Leni Riefenstahl. They became close friends at the end of their lives and wrote each other letters! For a Jewish boy, it’s quite exceptional, I think.

Was it about taking the biggest trauma of your life and somehow making it your own?
That trauma was always there, the memory of that terrible time when he had to hide every night during the war. But he found a way to cope, and he never looked back in anger, ever. He loved Berlin; his foundations are there. I can understand it when someone who suffered during the Nazi regime and never saw his or her parents again says: “I never want to go back to Germany.” Helmut wasn’t like that at all. He talks very openly about it in the film, for the very first time, by the way. He had never done that before.

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