Zika documentary on photographer Jan Saudek premieres in Czech cinemas

Photo: Zipo film archiv

Jan Saudek is one of the Czech Republic’s best-known photographers, whose work is instantly recognizable for his trademark use of coloration and scarred backdrops, his subjects sometimes intimate, sometimes provocative, nudes. Not long ago, Adolf Zika, a world-class fashion and artistic photographer in his own right, completed a feature film about Mr Saudek which has now hit Czech cinemas. Titled “Jan Saudek – Trapped by his Passions, No Hope for Rescue”, the film is an attempt to take a closer look at the man behind a very public persona: that of a “Don Juan” and a “bad boy” even at the age of 72. Saudek, Adolf Zika makes clear, is someone whose life and artistic career have been defined by passion, for better and for worse.

Director Adolf Zika:

“Women are the alpha-omega for Jan Saudek, as they are for me as a photographer, I shoot B&W nudes, and women for me are also the most important. When Jan catches sight of a woman’s body in the beginning of the film as ‘a boy’, it is clear it is something that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Jan will always want more. He has enjoyed his passions, but of course there is always a price. You can’t indulge as much as Jan has and not pay the price, something he himself admits.”

In the documentary, Adolf Zika says he set out to confront Saudek in a number of personal areas and he appears to have kept his word: although the Jan Saudek Czech viewers will see in the film is one that they will recognize, the film arguably goes more in depth into the photographer’s past than similar projects before. There are the turns when Saudek was kicked out by an ex-wife, almost broke. And throughout it all, there is his work. In crisp fashion the film examines various periods in the photographer’s life, from his youth to his relationships, to his enormous commercial success after the fall of communism.

A number of reviewers have pointed out one of the most interesting moments is when director Zika and Saudek return to the photographer’s former dingy basement flat: a single room where Saudek lived for seven years. A single window in the room became the central motif in what are now considered some of Saudek’s best prints. Adolf Zika again:

Photo: Zipo film archiv
“This period came after his wife threw him out for cheating, a weakness he admits to repeatedly in the film. She threw him out and basically he had nowhere to go. He found this apartment where he went on to produce some of his best stuff. He dreamed through the frame of this window: creating fields, or reflecting on childhood, love, new relationships. The technique is called sandwiching, combining the different images manually. It went on to inspire the REM video for “Losing My Religion’. It was unique in photography and an important period in his career.”

Photo: Zipo film archiv
There are other moments in the film which are decidedly dramatic. Among them, is a meeting with the public at the Na zabradli theatre when a member of the audience accuses the photographer of kitsch, calling his work “repulsive”. Although Mr Saudek shrugs off the moment, Adolf Zika says that all communication between himself and the photographer ended for one month.

“That was an unpleasant moment but he wouldn’t admit that it got to him. Not there. He leaves, as you see in the film. And then communication stops. I think that’s similar to a lot of artists I’ve known or studied and he’s got it too. He stopped communicating and it took a while for us to get back on track. I hope I was able to show at least some of that in the film, otherwise I haven’t succeeded. It’s not true that Jan Saudek is ‘invulnerable’.”

Photo: Zipo film archiv
But arguably the most fascinating moment of all comes during a photo shoot when Saudek waits for a young model in his studio. Adolf Zika shot the sequence using two cameras, both of which revealed two different situations, one more out-of-control. In the film the director shows them back-to-back to reveal how the model ultimately ruffled the photographer’s feathers.

“It’s true that she got to him: she completely ignored his importance and she wore him down with her sheer youth and nerve. She was not at all taken by his aura as a photographer and you’d expect someone on such a shoot to be at least a little bit nervous.”

Of course, it’s not just about confrontation. Adolf Zika makes clear he has enormous respect for Mr Saudek and stresses they are friends; theirs is more than just a professional relationship and his is not just an attempt to dissect the photographer, whom he generally admires, but an attempt at understanding. There are many moments, it is worth noticing, when the director works creatively with the image: Saudek discussing “the night” becomes a clever mosaic of city lights blurred through swift panning and editing. Another moment, Saudek’s first encounter with sex as a boy, a voyeuristic discovery, becomes a motif returned to several times in the film.

Photo: Zipo film archiv
If there is a weakness in “Jan Saudek – Trapped by his Passions, No Hope for Rescue”, it is that the more destructive edges of the photographer’s relationships – including his strongest muse Sára – are not confronted rather more directly but only obliquely alluded to. In the film, viewers will also get a good overview of Mr Saudek’s work, often utilising moments of the grotesque and Dionysian to the point of sometimes shocking. Mr Saudek insists he would never photograph anyone in an undignified pose or disrespectable manner, but some may disagree. Regardless, there is no question that Mr Saudek has left his mark as a major photographer. Mr Zika illustrates that point near the end of the film, when he lists off the sheer number of Mr Saudek’s different exhibitions. It makes it difficult to believe how much doubt Mr Saudek expresses at that moment in himself, a scene where he questions whether it was all “worth it”. Adolf Zika once again:

“I myself wondered whether he meant it seriously or whether it was just a ‘pose’. One of my friends, a theatre director whom I showed the scene to, said ‘Oh, I don’t believe a word of it!’ But another friend, a writer, said ‘No, no, no, let him have his moment!’ And I realised this too is a paradox about Jan Saudek: when he tells the truth, one person doesn’t believe him. When he pretends, another takes him seriously. And that too is what Saudek, or the Saudek ‘brand’, is about. It was unusual but it made sense. Some people laughed, others accepted it.”