Iconic actress Isabella Rossellini has been honoured with the Stockholm Lifetime Achievement Award 2020 at this year’s Stockholm Film Festival, which she receives with even more joy as the city is her mother’s (Ingrid Bergman) hometown.
At this year’s film festival, she appears as herself in the documentary Helmut Newton: The Bad and The Beautiful, directed by Gero von Boehm. It is the first documentary about one of the greatest masters of photography, who died tragically in a Los Angeles car accident in 2004. Never bulgar, Newton shot countless portraits of people: politicians, financiers, movie stars, fashion models… – you name it. But they all always had a thing in common: they oozed power. In this time of reinvention, we had a video call with the gorgeous Isabella to talk about photography and other aspects of her remarkable career. Congratulations on the well-deserved award!
Yesterday I watched Helmut’s documentary and I really enjoyed it. Now, some critics say that Helmut’s unorthodox methods and decidedly politically incorrect vision couldn’t exist today. What is your say on it?
For me, something very interesting about Helmut Newton is the fact that he was Jewish growing up in Berlin while the ‘Aryan race’ was celebrated. Later on, he discovered that that group of people hated him and wanted to kill him. I see that tension in his photos. I see that he admired them, but then he discovered the rejection and the cruelty. I see the celebration of that kind of beauty, yet the women are very frightening too. That made his photos very compelling.
When they said his portraits of women were very aggressive and that they weren’t nice, I didn’t see it that way – still don’t. I think his work is very wonderful, and he was a very funny man; it was very fun to be with him.
There is this footage from French TV where American writer and political activist Susan Sontag accuses him of being a misogynist to his face. Don’t you think that had this been true, any of the countless women who worked with him would’ve spoken out or felt humiliated/uncomfortable at some point?
I admire Susan Sontag a lot. If Susie thought about it… I don’t know because if I don’t know the details what she accused him of, it is difficult for me to comment. I've always found it interesting to work with people that are talented, and Helmut certainly was.
Speaking of misogynistic men, one of the most iconic performances in movie making is you and Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet.
This woman was affected by the Stockholm syndrome, and it was very controversial when it came out. In films, they always want a simplistic resolution. Is she a victim or a horrible person who likes to be beaten? But the truth of the matter is that you can be affected by the Stockholm syndrome, and things become very confusing.
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Claudia Schiffer, © Alexander Hein, LUPA FILM.
How do you remember people reacted to this depiction of men – making them vulnerable or how attraction to a woman can make them feel resentful and angry.
At the time, David was also accused of misogyny, but I disagree. I thought it was a very compelling portrait of madness. When I was tortured by Dennis Hopper’s character, I remember we had to play a scene where I am singing, and I think Dorothy feels pretty save when she’s singing – she is onstage and nothing bad can happen to her. He comes in and sits down. He looks at her and starts to cry. I didn’t expect Dennis to do that, I was like, how wonderful is that? He cries because, in his way, he is in love with her and he’s angry at being in love with her. Because if you are in love, you are also a victim of that person as you are depending on that person.
I thought that Dennis played it so well, he had this absolutely brilliant intuition. Not just to wait for me, this character liked to rape me and hit me while being in love with me, and when he had me there, he raped me because he was so angry that he had desired me and was depending on me, and then he wanted me, and I was in love with him. I had my husband and child who he kidnapped, so I thought that was so interesting. He’s sick and it’s criminal, but he can play those different levels within the character.
What do you remember from working with Helmut?
I didn’t work with Helmut a lot. You know, I’m not his type, he preferred to work with the kind of ‘blonde exuberant type,’ but he took a few portraits of me and also of me with David Lynch. I worked with Richard Avedon or Bruce Weber maybe thirty or forty times, but with Helmut only a few. It was always funny almost child-like. He was very charming. It felt like you were working with a naughty boy who was in disbelief with his parents. There was something incredibly charming about him. To work with him was very appealing, and I enjoyed it although I knew I was not his type (laughs).
What do you like the most about his photography?
It was always very controversial to work with him. When I received his call, I was like, oh, Helmut… (chuckles). To tell you the truth, I have no book of him with me right now, but I think his photography was very original. I can see in his pictures there was an attraction and a fear of women, especially that kind of aggressive white woman.
However, he photographed Grace Jones beautifully, and she is not at all a blonde German lady. There were other things too. He photographed beautifully the athletes at the Berlin Olympics in 1939, and then he portrayed incredibly beautifully different tribes in Africa, so there can be other aesthetics you are seeking. It is interesting, that search.
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Grace Jones, © Pierre Nativel, LUPA FILM.
Photography now and then. It was less accessible and wasn’t on the same technical level as today, but perhaps there was some more magic in it?
I remember once my father went to a school to teach film, and he brought a camera with him. All the students approached to take a look at it, and he got so mad – why are you looking at the camera? If I was a writer and came with a pen, would you come closer to look at it? It’s not the pen that writes!
It is true, even if technology nowadays is simplified: you don’t have negatives, you don’t need to send them to the lab, you see the pictures immediately, and even your iPhone can take very good photos. But it’s not technology that uses art. Technology is just technology. It is what it is in your mind and in your heart.
Please, allow me to ask you a more personal question about your career. How likely is that you and David Lynch will work together again?
There is no plan to work together, David has become more of a painter lately – he’s been always a wonderful painter. He is 75 years old, and being on the set is quite difficult. I’m not saying that he’s too old to be on the set (chuckles), but he expresses his art happily through painting now.
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David Lynch and Isabelle Rossellini, Los Angeles, 1988 © Helmut Newton. Courtesy Helmut Newton Foundation.
To know more about the documentary, Helmut Newton: The Bad and The Beautiful shows Helmut’s provocative work while pondering whether his imagery was misogynist or empowering. Freedom of expression or sexism? Well, other renowned muses of the photographer like Grace Jones, Charlotte Rampling, Marianne Faithful and Claudia Schiffer also star in the documentary, and they all agree that his character was that of an innocent, charming and playful naughty boy who took away all the edge and made people more comfortable and relaxed.
Nobody who’s worked with him has ever complained about the experience or expressed feeling humiliated. He wanted his models acting rather than modelling, seeing them as a vehicle of expression. In fact, many people considered Newton’s approach to photography necessary at the time. Of course, it’s up to you whether you like his work or not, but this documentary makes a statement about freedom of expression.
The German photographer always found fascination in the combination of opposite elements. For instance, photographing a $1,000,000 bracelet next to a roast chicken with its legs wide open. Whether people understood his artistic approach – his images spoke about the culture at large tossing irony and humour into the established world of fashion magazines and commercial work at the time –, Helmut Newton made his voice heard in mainstream culture.
To understand it, it’s important to put his art into context. For example, one of his more popular works for Vogue magazine was Sie kommen, naked for Vogue Paris (1981), a two-page spread featuring four women wearing all that expensive luxury clothes and jewellery on the left side, and on the right side, you see these same women, in the same position, but naked, thus becoming even stronger. As said in the interview, everyone who knew Helmut Newton agrees on the fact that his ultimate goal was to portray the beauty and power of women.
“What is the soul? I have no interest at all in the people I photograph, the girls, their private life or their character. I am interested in the outside and what my camera sees. I am interested in photographing faces, breasts, legs. You see that in my photos, and hopefully, something more. But soul? I don’t get that,” Newton explains in the documentary. Every person who worked with him has a smile on their face when talking about him; they see him as an innocent and playful man.
No one explains it better than Marianne Faithful: “I don’t think anyone else could’ve made me to do that. Helmut made me show my tits without feeling any embarrassment or shame. I was brought up by nuns in a catholic convent, and it took me years to decompress and get over it.”

Gero von Boehm has counted with the priceless help and contribution from the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin along the Germany Public Television ZDF.
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Arena, Miami, 1978. © Helmut Newton. Courtesy Helmut Newton Foundation.
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Self portrait, Monte Carlo, 1993. © Helmut Newton, Courtesy Helmut Newton Foundation.