‘Photographer’ (Fotograf) movie review: Karel Roden is Jan Saudek in provocative biopic

Jan Saudek wasn’t the nicest guy in the world, according to Irena Pavlásková’s new pseudo-biopic Fotograf (English title: Photographer), which claims to be “loosely based” on events in the famed Czech photographer’s life.

Beginning after the fall of communism in the early 1990s, when Saudek is already one of the most renowned photographers the country has produced, Fotograf intimately details how the man mistreats the women in his life, which include both a number of ex-wives and current lovers, ignores his children, drinks himself into blackouts, gives in to his sexual fetishes with wild abandon, and generally presents himself as arrogant and inconsiderate.

And yet, we have no reason to doubt the veracity of the film’s claims, because (incredibly) it was co-written by Saudek himself, who also appears together with actor Karel Roden (who plays the photographer in the film) in bumper scenes at the beginning and end.

There are two possibilities here: either Saudek is presenting an exaggerated portrait of his tabloid lifestyle (which is entirely possible – the painter jokes with Roden that the filmmakers should “give the audience what they want” at the beginning) or he’s being brutally honest with the filmmakers here.

Regardless, he and co-writer and director Irena Pavlásková have shaped a story in Fotograf that is both fascinating and dramatically satisfying. Surprisingly so. Biopics struggle to work in cinematic terms – either the true stories are bent to fit a traditional narrative, or the real-life events don’t work on a dramatic level – but Fotograf seems to find the perfect ironic perspective with which to examine its subject, and the result is something rather extraordinary.

In the early 1990s, Saudek is one of the most famous photographers the country has produced, having covertly smuggled his pictures out of the country during the communist years.

Still, he lives an unassuming bohemian life in his modest Prague flat, which always seems to be full of scantily clad women waiting to be photographed in his home studio – and assist the photographer in other ways. Saudek makes no secret of his fetishes, and most of these women are obese (which makes certainly makes for some unique scenes of graphic nudity); still, his many wives and long-term lovers are of the more traditional variety.

Flashbacks detail his early days as a fledgling photographer, shooting his nude wife against the moldy walls of the factory where he worked. Those walls, of course, became one of the defining aspects of Saudek’s work, and years later he recreates the backgrounds in his apartment studio.

The seeds of a storyline are planted in early scenes. It involves young Líba (brilliantly played by Marie Málková), who forcibly inserts herself into Saudek’s life after spotting him at a gallery function. The photographer doesn’t show much interest in her, but once she starts managing his schedule and cleaning up around the studio, she ingratiates herself into his life.

The film belongs to Roden’s Saudek and Málková’s Liba, two incredibly complex characters whose goals aren’t immediately known to us – or even the characters themselves. Roden and Málková have a terrific rapport in scenes that take them from a business relationship to a sexual one, before pitting them against each other as bitter rivals.

Líba is a fictional character (for legal reasons), but clearly based on Sára Saudková; the story between her and Saudek will be well-known to local audiences, but it’s an invaluable resource for anyone unfamiliar with the story. Saudek’s official website still gives equal prominence to the art of his ex-lover (and current daughter-in-law), and there isn’t a hint of controversy on either’s Wikipedia page.

The story, as put forth by Fotograf, involves betrayal and deception on both sides. Neither of these characters is particularly sympathetic, but they are fully realized human beings, and the resolution is wickedly satisfying. Saudek has received his comeuppance, but his fame can never be taken away, while Líba will never earn the fame she so desperately craves.

A vivid, brutally honest portrait of one of the Czech Republic’s most renowned artists (but by no means a definitive biography) that’s also immensely gratifying in dramatic terms, Fotograf is one of the best mainstream Czech movies in years.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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