Tributes to Thomas Elsaesser

On Film / The Daily — Dec 10, 2019
Thomas Elsaesser at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2017 / Photo by Vera de Kok

Since Friday, when news of the sudden and entirely unexpected death of Thomas Elsaesser was still too fresh to process, we’ve seen a fair number of tributes to this vital figure in the fields of film and media studies. The Belgian site Sabzian has translated a good portion of the obituary that appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Thursday. Vinzenz Hediger, a professor of cinema studies at Goethe University in Frankfurt, emphasizes the range and impact of Elsaesser’s voluminous writings—over two hundred essays and nearly two dozen books—and notes that Film Theory: An Introduction through the Senses, the book he coauthored with Malte Hagener in 2007, has been translated into “all the major languages” and has become “a standard textbook in film studies introductory courses around the world.”

Born in Berlin, Elsaesser grew up in a family of cinephiles. His grandfather, Martin Elsaesser, was an architect, an urban planner, and one of the central subjects of the one film Thomas Elsaesser wrote and directed, The Sun Island (2017). Talking to Patrice Petro during the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference in 2014, Elsaesser recalled going to the movies as a teenager with his grandmother, tagging along with his parents as they attended meetings of a local film club every Friday evening, and receiving “as a birthday present a subscription to the only serious German film magazine at the time, Filmkritik.” In the early 1960s, he moved to England to study literature, and by the early 1970s, he was teaching comparative literature at the University of East Anglia. There, with the backing of the British Film Institute, he introduced a series of courses on film that eventually evolved into an undergraduate program.

During these years, he began contributing to and coediting the Brighton Film Review before founding his own film journal, Monogram, where he published a series of three essays on classic Hollywood cinema. The second of these, “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama,” won Elsaesser his first round of international recognition. Patricia Pisters, one of his students at the University of Amsterdam, notes that the widely translated essay is “exemplary of Thomas Elsaesser’s style. In brilliant prose, he explains how melodrama can ‘make stones weep,’ and how color, sound, sets, and camera movements provoke the uncanny ‘melancholic energy’ underneath the textures and materials. He simultaneously placed these cinematographic elements into the larger context of American culture and psychological studies of emotional precariousness that finds subtle, subliminal, and sometimes subversive ways of expression on the screen.”

Elsaesser arrived in Amsterdam in the early 1990s, having been hired by the university to establish a film and television department that has since grown to become one of the largest and most vital institutions of its kind. “I made sure that the curriculum also included ‘New Media’ as an equal and integral part of both teaching and research,” Elsaesser told Vladimir Lukin in 2016. “And while, at undergraduate level, the courses were divided into the different subject areas, at MA level, I treated cinema, television, and digital media as interdependent and mutually complementary media forms.”

The occasion for Lukin’s interview was the publication of Film History as Media Archaeology: Tracking Digital Cinema, the fiftieth book in the Amsterdam University Press series Film Culture in Transition, which Elsaesser launched soon after his arrival in the Netherlands. “In my fifteen years of experience in publishing, Professor Elsaesser was the most committed series editor I have ever met and worked with,” writes senior commissioning editor Maryse Elliott. “Our editorial meetings would always last hours and in need of several cups of coffee, to go through the long list—becoming longer still with every meeting—of all the book projects in the works for the series.”

As for the book at hand, media archeology is “one of the subfields of media studies that he helped to establish,” notes Pisters. “While for many media archaeology scholars film is considered simply a brief interlude, eclipsed by the avalanche of bits, bytes, pixels and algorithms of the digital age, Thomas Elsaesser remained committed to cinema, which he considered a multi-faceted invention into whose origins every new media innovation could be inscribed. Like nobody else, Thomas Elsaesser knew how to pose pertinent questions about the media technologies and cultural practices we are now familiar with by bootstrapping its multiple sources in the past.”

In a tribute written for SCMS, Joe McElhaney, who teaches in the film and media department at Hunter College, asks, “Has there been any scholar in the field who made more of an impact, for so long and in so many varied ways, as Thomas Elsaesser? Regardless of one’s own particular interests, there was most likely something on—or related to—the topic of one’s research that Thomas himself had already published, taught, or given a lecture or conference paper on, something that he would so cogently and provocatively define that reading and citing him became a convention for many of us.”

For all the depth and breadth of his interests, Elsaesser is known to many primarily as one of the most essential historians of German cinema. Talking to Lukin, he recalled being asked early in his career “to teach one course on New German cinema (very ‘new’ at the time) and one on Expressionist cinema (which I re-baptized ‘Weimar Cinema’). I didn’t know anything about Weimar cinema at the time, so I was learning by doing, along with my graduate students, and they were a terrifically intelligent and enthusiastic group; I’m sure I learnt as much from them as they did from me.”

New German Cinema: A History (1989) was Elsaesser’s first book, and it’s a crucial text in establishing just how very different the origins of this movement were from those of, say, the French New Wave or the American independent cinema of the 1980s and early 1990s. Instead of having been launched in the offices of a magazine such as Cahiers du cinéma or backed by a series of maxed out credit cards, the careers of such filmmakers as Alexander Kluge, Harun Farocki, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder were inextricably rooted in Germany’s publicly funded television networks. Elsaesser offered further historical context in his 1996 book, Fassbinder's Germany: History Identity Subject.

We were fortunate to have Elsaesser contribute an audio commentary, recorded with fellow scholar Mary Ann Doane, to our release of G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929) as well as an essay on Fassbinder’s The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) in 2015. A year later, he gave us another essay, on Ingmar Berman’s Persona (1966). In 2007, Elsaesser spent a year as Ingmar Bergman Professor at Stockholm University, and he launched a series of video essays with Anne Bachmann and Jonas Moberg called Bergman Senses. Catherine Grant, a professor of digital media and screen studies at Birkbeck, University of London, has incorporated three of these essays into her own tribute, Installations and Compilations: Elsaesser Senses. “Thomas was extremely supportive and warmly appreciative of the sensuous methodologies of video essay practice,” she writes. “Our field owes him a huge debt of gratitude for his championing of the methods of this form of artistic research.”

If you can, do watch both versions. The first allows for a full appreciation of the juxtaposition of the imagery and Grant’s sharp sense for mixing sound. In the second version, Grant offers background on the project in a voice-over narration and quotes from Elsaesser’s 2009 notes on the series: “Surprisingly enough, as we went through all of Bergman’s films to select appropriate extracts and scenes, our focused attention to moment and instant, to interval and intermittence, to seriality and succession, to random distraction and free association, became of immense value in looking closer at the films and appreciating their many levels of interlacing internal architectures.” And “besides giving a new generation the opportunity to learn to look at films closely (that is, with all their senses) by doing the kind of patient, labor-intensive and time-consuming work that such compilations and installations require, this—in every sense, labor of love—constitutes both a new form of cinephilia and a new hermeneutics of close reading.”

For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.