Fade-out on Karel Čáslavský
The story of 'a soloist' who became the face of film preservation
Posted: January 9, 2013
The film historian had spent most of his life working at the National Film Archive and leaves behind a large collection of interwar documentary footage.
Karel Čáslavský, the country's most recognizable film historian, passed away after a long illness in the early morning hours of Jan. 2, just a few weeks short of his 76th birthday.
A longtime documentary historian at the National Film Archive (NFA), Čáslavský had cultivated his image for many decades with wildly popular shows on television to establish his credibility as a film pundit. The title of Hledání ztraceného času (In Search of Lost Time), a series with which he was widely associated during its 20-year run 1992-2012, oddly taken from the medium of literature, served to cement the perception that he was a film connoisseur.
Born in 1937 in Lipnice nad Sázavou in the Vysočina region, the son of a wheelwright, he says in documentary filmmaker Helena Třeštíková's portrait of him that his first experience watching a film came at the age of 5. It was a film titled Karel a já, by director Miroslav Cikán, and it had such an impact on him he fell in love with the medium immediately. He also ascribes what he calls a meticulous approach to film to his father, for whom precision was a great necessity in his work.
A student of the esteemed film school in Čimelice, south Bohemia, that also educated the likes of film director Jaromil Jireš and Barrandov Studios director Jaroslav Gürtler before closing its doors in 1982, Čáslavský went to work at the film studios in Prague in 1956 as a production assistant shortly after graduation.
In the early 1960s, he joined theNFA, where one of his major interests was the collection of slapstick films, a genre that would soon propel him onto the national stage: He caught the attention of the archive's director, Myrtil Frída, with whom he ended up collaborating on 52 komiků a spol. (52 Comedians and Co.), a television series that presented numerous slapstick shorts in a Sunday time slot and turned out to be extremely popular.
The success of 52 Comedians and Co. and other series such as Komik a jeho svět (The Comedian and his World) led to Čáslavský's involvement in the mid-1980s with one of the most famous quiz shows of the period, Videostop, which tested contestants' knowledge of Czech films with that of well-known film professionals. Čáslavský featured as judge and also co-moderated the show with Jan Rosák.
"At that time, it was the intelligent part of the overall television programming," says Michal Bregant, currently the director of the NFA. "Čáslavský had the sense for entertainment, and he really loved the highly positive response from the audience."
It was a response that followed Čáslavský until his death Jan. 2. Bregant says he was a "different kind of celebrity," a man whom everybody thought they knew because he spoke with such authority to them and shared his seemingly vast knowledge about 20th-century film with them; but there was an eccentric side to this figure, as well.
"He loved the collection [of which he was in charge at the NFA] so much, he didn't want anyone to touch it," Bregant recalls. "He would go home in the afternoon with the key from his room and from his safe, in which he kept all his files that only he understood. He even had his own system of cataloguing."
With the launch of In Search of Lost Time in 1992, Čáslavský also came to be known as the public face of the NFA. The program that he presented showed almost exclusively personal footage from the interwar period, obtained from private sources all across the country. Everyone brought the footage not to the NFA, but to Čáslavský, and in this way the connection between him and his viewers remained strong through the years.
Bregant suggests Čáslavský saw the world through the prism of the materials he had in his possession rather than recognize that they contained a necessarily incomplete version of the time, not only because a limited number of people recorded it on film, but also because he only had access to a fraction of these recordings.
"I have full respect for his knowledge, for his passion for the old movies and for film as a testimony to the 20th century, but … he was a soloist," Bregant says.
Academics are bound to question the contribution of Čáslavský's show toward the finer understanding of the social and political reality of the time it reflects, but there is no doubt he inspired Czechs to rummage through their attics in the hope of finding a piece of the puzzle, and that he was passionate about presenting these fragments to a wider audience.
The Třeštíková-directed television short, released in 1996, ends with an observation that still rings true and serves as a worthy epitaph to this important figure who arguably did more to focus the public's attention on the history of film in the 20th century than just about anybody else in the country: "a person who helps to revive the visual memory of the Czech nation."
André Crous can be reached at