Trying to unmask Jan Saudek. In hell of his passions

Pavel Turek
11. 1. 2008 16:00
The Czech photographer stars in a new documentary film
A devil or a fool?
A devil or a fool? | Foto: Korzo

Review - How often do you see a 95-minute feature documentary film about a living art photographer? The enfant terrible of the Czech art photography Jan Saudek can now boast of starring in one.

The aim of the documentary "Jan Saudek in the Hell of His Passions, Paradise Far Away" might have been to tear Saudek´s mask off or aspire for an insight into the photographer's heart. The director Adolf Zika, a photographer himself, may have failed to do so, but the question remains - is there any Saudek without a mask at all? 

One thing can be ascribed to Jan Saudek - he certainly popularized erotic freedom in photography. And it was exactly the recurring theme of nudes and erotic scenes which earned him the attention of communist authorities in the former Czechoslovakia.

His erotically explicit photographs became an eyesore for some in the West in the 1990s too.

Genius in self-promotion

The mother of his youngest child, girlfriend Pavla Hodková, puts Jan Saudek, wearing white shorts and a Jack Daniels T-shirt, up on a horizontal bar and the photographer sets into a hip-swing and pull-up gymnastic series. Then he jumps down and joggs to the point of exhaustion. 

Sex and alcohol are common attributes to the name of Jan Saudek
Sex and alcohol are common attributes to the name of Jan Saudek | Foto: ZIPO film archiv

The scene perfectly symbolizes, similarly to most of his photographs, all things that are typical for Saudek: self-irony, showing off, buffoonery, persistence, pathos, alcohol and sex.

Saudek may not be a good businessman when it comes to dealing with his own photographs, as his former girlfriend Sára often emphasized.

However, when it comes to self-promotion, he is a pure genius.  

Who directs whom?

And that is something Zika was completely unprepared for. This fact probably poses the greatest weakness of the feature documentary.

With his unbelievably obsequious questions like "Mr Jan, what was the worst thing in your life?" he looks like a brat who, having lost mom's shopping list, gets a hard sell for his five bucks: a bathroom air freshener and yoghurts well past their sell-by date.

Scantily clad women have always been a primary subject of Jan Saudek´s photographs
Scantily clad women have always been a primary subject of Jan Saudek´s photographs | Foto: Aktuálně.cz

Zika can't keep pace with Saudek, doesn't ask a single concrete question and doesn't insist on answers; as if the fact that the master himself speaks to him was enough to make him happy. He lusts for his jokes and does not control his excursions let alone keep the storyline going and get some real story or thrill in the film. 

Saudek directs his self-advertising in a bossy way and Zika nods his head like a harmless toy.

Within the course of more than ninety minutes, Saudek's image only gets chiseled and intensified. It is exactly the same as you would expect provided you have read at least one of many interviews with him, or seen the Czech TV program called Secret Room (Třináctá komnata), or his performance in TV Nova´s talk show called Boiler (Kotel). Both TV shows aim at forcing the invited celebrities into personal confessions. 

Fog exposes only fog

The appeal of the Saudek phenomenon is based on the assumption that something remains "hidden". That there is something below the surface. That his bragging covers something deep inside. That behind the sexual prowess and fitness he boasts about, we would like to see a lovelorn old fellow.

The trouble, however, is that he who is foggy may not be mysterious after all. On top of that, he may not have the tendency to hide anything at all. The exact opposite is true: fog most often exposes only fog.

A pure genius in self-promotion
A pure genius in self-promotion | Foto: Aktuálně.cz

It is the unhidden foolishness of a photographer struggling to be as famous and visible as his photographs. Saudek´s vain youth obsession and his permanently mentioned sporting feats trace their roots precisely to this. 

All of this along with the not really meant disregard and groaning over lack of money constitutes the repetitive choruses of the documentary and in fact, also of Saudek's way of acting in public.

The consistency of his foolish histrionism is nearly as wonderful as that of his work. When he claims that he's a cheater, you can easily belive he is, because the Saudek without a mask is, in fact, the Saudek with a mask.

Is it rather the illusion of those trying to tear his mask off: they just make him to show off; but he is only afraid that when he comes somewhere, sleepy silence will set in. 

Jan Saudek (In the Hell of his Passions, Paradise Far Away), CZ/USA 2007, Scripted and Directed by Adolf Zika, 95 minutes, dsitributed by Palace Pictures, Premiere 3rd January 2008


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