Thomas Elsaesser, a truly titanic figure in film studies, passed away unexpectedly at the age of 76 on December 4, 2019, while on a teaching assignment in Beijing. His death casts a long shadow over the field. One of the pioneering generation of film scholars, who came to prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and helped to establish the study of cinema as a legitimate academic discipline, Elsaesser has been an omnipresent feature in film and media studies since that time, both in his voluminous and always incisive writings, many of which have become canonical texts, and, until his untimely death, on a personal level. With boundless energy and infinite erudition, he toured the world attending conferences, giving lectures and teaching seminars right up until the end. He is survived by his wife, Silvia Vega-Llona.
Whereas some academics have made their name on the basis of a single key concept or intervention into a niche sub-field, Elsaesser’s contribution to film studies was all-encompassing in nature, in a way that is no longer possible today, so vast and fragmented has the world of cinema scholarship become. From Hollywood melodrama to Weimar film, early cinema to the contemporary media landscape, there was, it seemed, no corner of the discipline that was left untouched by his influence. A prolific writer over a period of more than fifty years – “the fastest pen in film studies”, as one fellow elder statesman dubbed him in a private conversation – Elsaesser’s corpus of writings on cinema and media will stand as an enduring legacy of his thinking, and will assuredly touch budding cinephiles for many generations to come, just as his personal charms will remain fondly lodged in the minds of all of those for whom he was a mentor, a theoretical sparring partner, and a friend. A “family tree” of film studies would no doubt reveal a vast web of scholars who, whether in the first-, second- or third-degree, can trace their academic incubation to Elsaesser’s tutelage.
Elsaesser was born into a middle-class family in wartime Berlin, the grandson of one of Germany’s most highly regarded 20th century architects, Martin Elsaesser. A peripatetic childhood spent during a time when the Federal Republic had to reconstruct itself – both economically and morally – culminated in a bachelor’s degree in Anglistik at Heidelberg University. Already a confirmed cinephile, Elsaesser’s life would take a dramatic turn when he decided to relocate to the UK to continue his studies in English literature, receiving an MA at the University of Sussex. In the early 1960s, such a move was a quite rare undertaking for a young researcher, and his international compass expanded through a formative stint in the Sorbonne in 1968 – a fateful year for the nation and, more specifically, its film criticism. Elsaesser returned to Sussex for his doctorate. While his dissertation centred on a comparative historiography of the French revolution (universities were still, at this point, resistant to cinema-related research, especially in the institutionally conservative UK), it was nonetheless film that most preoccupied his interests. Editor of the journals Brighton Film Review (1968-1970) and Monogram (1971-1975), Elsaesser was a key figure, along with the critics writing for Screen, in introducing to the English-speaking world the latest developments in French film theory (as they were articulated in organs such as Cahiers du cinéma and Cinéthique). But his landmark 1974 essay on Hollywood melodrama, “Tales of Sound and Fury” showed the independence of Elsaesser’s views on cinema. In rehabilitating the critical fortunes of a genre that had fallen into disrepute among “serious” film aficionados, its revolutionary impact on our understanding of the work of Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, George Cukor et al., can still be felt today.
Finding a teaching position in European literatures at the University of East Anglia in 1972, it was Elsaesser’s determination and the force of his personality that enabled him to establish a full film studies programme at the Norwich campus, the first in the UK, and simultaneous with efforts in the US spearheaded by Dudley Andrew (University of Iowa) and Jay Leyda (New York University). He was known to co-teach seminars on Weimar cinema with the author W.G. Sebald (a famous fellow denizen of Norfolk), and for a decade and a half supervised the projects of a large crop of doctoral students.
In 1991, Elsaesser made the surprise move to the University of Amsterdam, playing a similarly formative role in founding the Department of Film and Television Studies there, and initiating the book series “Film Cultures in Transition” for Amsterdam University Press, which continues to this day. From the late 1980s on, his written output exploded. On a near-annual basis, he completed monographs and collaborative books exploring topics as diverse as 1970s German filmmaking (New German Cinema: A History, 1989), the earliest years of the film medium (Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, 1990) and the fate of cinema at a time when viewing media are being radically dispersed (Cinema Futures: Cain, Abel or Cable?, 1998). His studies on Fassbinder, Farocki, trauma in film and 21st century Hollywood remain reference works on these topics. Under the influence of Michel Foucault and Friedrich Kittler, his theoretical preoccupation with the notion of media archaeology resulted in the late masterpiece Film History as Media Archaeology (2016).
As this list shows (lamentably abbreviated as it is), Elsaesser’s film theory operated in a zone between German, Anglo-American and French influences, which made the Netherlands an ideal home base for his international explorations. He wrote with equal confidence in English and German, and spoke the former language with an impeccable accent. He was, as a result, perhaps the world’s first global film scholar, and his writing was translated into more than 20 languages. Constrained to retire from UA in 2008 (not before Festschriften were dedicated to him on both his 60th and 65th birthdays), the frenetic pace of his activities continued unabated. Maintaining dual residencies in Amsterdam and Manhattan, he took on short-term lecturing positions at Yale, Brown and Columbia, where his seminars on topics such as contemporary philosophy and arthouse cinema, the migration of filmmakers to the museum space, and a sensorial approach to film theory became legendary.
Late in his life, Elsaesser was also motivated by another passion: the architectural legacy of his grandfather. When the European Central Bank announced plans to relocate to the site of the Großmarkthalle in Frankfurt am Main, one of the elder Elsaesser’s signature buildings, Thomas Elsaesser and his siblings took the body to court to protect its architectural integrity. It is a measure of Elasesser’s self-confidence that he could even consider issuing a legal challenge to one of the most powerful financial institutions in the world, but these efforts regrettably did not prevent the destruction of a significant segment of the original building. Having resisted the temptation to step behind the camera his entire life, Elsaesser made the decision to dedicate a film to his grandfather’s life, and the essayistic documentary Die Sonneninsel (The Sun Island) was completed in 2017. The grandchildren also took the step of establishing the Martin-Elsaesser-Stiftung in 2009 to keep the memory of the architect’s work alive for future generations.
Personally, I belong perhaps to one of the later generations of scholars who were shaped by Thomas’s guidance. Long familiar with his writings, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to take his seminar on “The Moving Image in the Museum” in the Spring of 2010 at Yale. As I journeyed back to New Haven from a Christmas break in Melbourne, planning to land just in time to attend his first session of the semester, disaster struck: a snowstorm hit the north-east, and my flight was changed to a red-eye to Washington, DC via San Diego. Making the trek northwards through thick snowfall on an Amtrak train, before catching a taxi home that skidded across the icy roads, I managed to arrive at the seminar room a mere half-hour late. Thomas was not impressed, and delivered one his trademark glowers to this tardy interloper. He did not suffer fools lightly, and it was apparent that his uncompromising pedagogical style was becoming increasingly incompatible with the coddling, gold-star-for-everybody tendency of higher education in North America. But the privilege of being a live witness to the nimbleness of his critical intellect was not to be missed: no sooner had he dazzled us with a masterful analysis of a film or piece of art, than he proceed to articulate another, diametrically opposed but even more convincing interpretation of the same work.
In the end, we formed a close bond, and he became a generous, open-hearted mentor, not through any academic sycophancy (I hope), but precisely because he appreciated robust challenges to his ideas. If he maintained a certain professional distance when it came to his personal life (even calling Thomas by his first name was a daunting step to make), he was always prepared to continue a spirited debate about the major issues facing the field well into the night. On several occasions, he invited me to give guest lectures as part of his seminars, and I was pleased to return the favour when he found himself in Frankfurt am Main. In 2019, I trepidatiously invited him to be the keynote speaker at a conference in the German city dedicated to the 1969 Cahiers du cinéma text “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism.” Not only did he graciously accept, but the talk he gave was thematically and oratorically one of his finest, flitting between autobiographical recollections of his time in Paris (where I learned he was in the orbit of the Trotskyist movement, and became the London distributor for the newspaper Rouge), deep explorations of the history of film theory, and ruminations on the implications of seemingly ephemeral contemporary audiovisual phenomena such as viral YouTube clips of people falling into sinkholes. In discussions, he was always quick to raise his hand, and he energetically held court at the convivial conference dinners. At one point, he mused about the future of the Martin-Elsaesser-Stiftung once he and his co-organisers passed away, but I dismissed the very idea that such a tragedy could be on the cards, and after he jetted straight from the conference to Beijing, I was confident we would see or write to each other soon. A few days later, the sad news circulated around the world. My only consolation was the knowledge that Thomas spent his last days in this world doing what he loved, but even now, I find myself wondering what his thoughts would have been about a world which was utterly transformed by the Covid pandemic mere weeks after his death.
I’ll miss him.