Anita Pallenberg Was a '60s It Girl. A New Documentary Brings Her Back to Life.

Anita Pallenberg in Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg, (Film Still). All images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

“I don’t need to settle scores—I’m reclaiming my soul,” Anita Pallenberg wrote in her unpublished memoir. The words of the late actor, model, and longtime Rolling Stones muse come to life through Scarlett Johansson’s narration in the new documentary Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg.

Rather than set the record straight, directors Alexis Bloom and Svetlana Zill follow the lead Pallenberg set out in her manuscript, which sat unfinished at the time of her death in 2017. They choose to recount scenes and moments, not tally offenses or successes. It’s ethereal, timeless, and, like the film’s muse, iconic. 

Pallenberg and Brian Jones in Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg, (Film Still).

Pallenberg’s notoriety is indisputable for ‘60s music heads or veterans, but perhaps not quite as familiar to a modern audience. The Italian-born, German actress and model was kicked out of boarding school in her teens and took up with the Dolce Vita crowd in Rome before hopping across the pond to Andy Warhol’s factory in New York.

She’s best known for her film appearances in Barbarella and the cult 1968 flick Candy (alongside the likes of Marlon Brando, Ringo Starr, and Sugar Ray Robinson) as well as her very publicized relationships with Brian Jones and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. But those in search of a rote autobiographical feature may find themselves lost. “I remember our editor asked, ‘Should we put a date on the bottom of the screen?’ and we were like, ‘Nah, it’s fine,’” Bloom says. The details are “not why something—or someone—is interesting,” Zill agrees. 

Alexis Bloom

Bloom and Zill met around seven years ago at legendary documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney’s company Jigsaw. They’d known each other around the office, where they worked separately on various documentary projects “right next door to each other,” Zill says. With the relatively small-scale nature of the New York documentary scene, they’d long been familiar with their respective work: Bloom’s on films like the Roger Ailes’s documentary Divide and Conquer and Zill’s on films like Restless Dreams, which takes on the music of Paul Simon.

But it wasn’t until they connected at one of Jigsaw’s January holiday parties that they realized the potential for creative collaboration. While they have a clear and immediate fondness for each other—finishing each other's sentences on Zoom, laughing and analyzing their work in equal measure—they're clear that what drew them to each other was professional admiration. 

Svetlana Zill

The Pallenberg documentary project began in 2019 when Marlon Richards (the eldest son of Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg) reached out to Bloom through a mutual friend with a bevy of archival materials. Bloom, in turn, tapped Zill, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things ‘60s rock music.

Together, they dove into Pallenberg’s materials, which included three unfinished manuscripts and several Super 8 films. But just because they had the archives doesn’t mean that putting together the final film was easy. 

Pallenberg with her husband, Keith Richards, and son, Marlon Richards in Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg, (Film Still).

“[The footage] wasn’t very well shot,” Bloom says with a laugh. “The mad stoned and out-of-control cinematographers were Anita and Keith themselves. We had to slow down frames; they used indoor reels for outdoor and outdoor reels for indoor.”

“We’d have to hold on a shot,” Zill chimes in, “and stabilize the footage to mine for the gems so the audience doesn’t get seasick.”

When it came to the narration, Bloom and Zill explored lots of ideas. Should Pallenberg be voiced by an English actor? German? Italian? She knew so many languages and lived in so many places that it felt wrong to commit to just one. “We found it better to jettison the idea of trying to imitate [Pallenberg] and go with somebody who has a sexy DNA, who could be credible, knowing, husky, and all that,” Bloom explains. “Scarlett [Johansson] was perfect.” 

Pallenberg in Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg, (Film Still).

Even with their fine-tuning, the footage—and film itself —feels lovingly personal, not over-futzed with. With testimony from Pallenberg’s friends and family, including her son Marlon and friend Kate Moss, rounding out Johansson’s narration, a portrait of a woman as an ever-shifting artist starts to emerge from all the fragments. The result feels less like a book on tape and more of a whisper through the ages, Pallenberg reaching out through time and memory to beckon you into her creative universe.