June on Helmut (Newton)

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I caught an early look at Helmut by June, a one hour documentary about Helmut Newton made by his widow, June. (That’s her to the right in the picture above.) It broadcasts next Monday, April 30 on Cinemax. (Which is, just like me, a subsidiary of Time-Warner, a conglomerate so vast and mysterious that before I write about anything — and I do mean anything — I have to check first to see if it might not be part of the far flung empire. Sure enough….)

Back to Helmut. In his wife’s film — actually mostly video that she shot over a period of several years before his death in 2004 — he’s the charming, puckish and, I always suspect, self-concealing man you meet in the not very revealing but very entertaining memoir that he published four years ago. Most of the hour consists of cheerfully ramshackle video of Newton at work in Paris, LA and around his home base of Monte Carlo, with the usual array of supermodels of the 90s and early 00s, who assume all kinds of intricate postures in a workaday manner. At one point Newton, working outdoors in a garden, directs a naked model who’s positioned on her hands and knees while smoking a cigarette. “Make it almost look natural,” he tells her. She almost does.

For the most part it’s an inconsequential hour. But in one area Newton opens up a bit. He talks about being drawn to large, powerful women — Amazons he calls them — and he connects it to the power of his mother, who guided the family to safety during the Holocaust. In his memoir Newton makes light of his early experience. Like everyone else in his family he had to flee Europe, but he likes to offer himself as a man whom history never laid a glove on. But after hearing him talk, however briefly, about his mother you begin to understand the S&M currents in his work differently. Now they seem like an outgrowth of his own struggle with the power of women, a way to subordinate his own fears.

As for his apparently sincere soliloquoy about the sexual allure of “my pin up girl” Margaret Thatcher, another aspect of his fascination with powerful women, all I can say is, it leaves you wondering how he must have felt about Golda Meir.