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Thomas Elsaesser (1943), emeritus Professor of Film and Television Studies, passed away on 4 December 2019. In Memoriam by Patricia Pisters, one of his first PhD students in Amsterdam, longtime collaborator and successor at the Department of Media Studies.

Photo: Jan de Groen / IFFR
Photo: Jan de Groen / IFFR

In 1991, Thomas Elsaesser was appointed as the first full professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He established what is now the department of Media Studies, the largest department of the Faculty of Humanities. After his retirement in 2008 he remained active in academic life, continuing teaching at Columbia University in the U.S., presenting keynote lectures across continents, publishing prolifically and making a documentary essay film about his grandfather. He was renowned for his vivid and erudite presence in the international field of Film and Media Studies. He passed away suddenly during a guest professorship in Beijing. His unexpected death comes as a shock to many scholars and friends around the world. His legacy cannot be underestimated.

Thomas Elsaesser belongs to the first generation of film scholars who pioneered  the creation of film and media studies as an academic discipline. In the 1950s, his grandmother’s passion for Hollywood cinema and his parents’ appreciation for European art cinema ignited the cinephilia that marks much of his later intellectual work. During his studies in comparative literature in the 1960s, Elsaesser ran a film club, started to write about film, and had much of his cinematic education in Henri Langlois’ famous Cinémathèque de Paris in the company of the famous auteurs of the French New Wave such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. In the 1970s, he set up the first full-fledged film program in Britain at the University of East Anglia. During that period he published three articles in Monogram: ‘The American Cinema: Why Hollywood?’ on classical Hollywood cinema of the 1930s and 1940s; ‘Tales of Sound and Fury’ on the family melodrama of the 1950s; and ‘Pathos of Failure’ on the 1970s road movie, which launched his international career. The much cited, reprinted and translated ‘Tales of Sound and Fury’ 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.

The seamless weaving of formal and stylistic qualities of the images and sounds with a vast range of cultural and psychological resonances, makes these early articles a lasting benchmark of film scholarship that, as Elsaesser remarks in ‘Tales of Sound and Fury’, is meant to be ‘provocative rather than proven.’ In all of his later work, Thomas Elsaesser’s sharp observations, encyclopedic knowledge and keen wit informed his publications and performances and provoked stimulating thoughts about film, television, digital media, art, politics and culture. His intellectual legacy is marked by substantive research and the creativity with which he invented new concepts in order to understand both the past, the present and the future of our contemporary media. His publications on early cinema and New German cinema, on media archaeology, memory and trauma, on European cinema in dialogue with Hollywood cinema, on mind-game films, digital cinema and the moving-image online and in art spaces have been recognized as milestones in and by the growing discipline of media and culture and have become classic contributions in the field for many generations of media scholars to come.  

When Thomas Elsaesser was hired in 1991 to occupy the first chair of Film and Television Studies at the University of Amsterdam, he started the department from scratch. With an undergraduate and graduate program that were immediately successful, he hired a team of young staff members, many of whom were, in those pioneering years, trained ‘on the spot’ while teaching and working on a PhD dissertation. These founding years of establishing a new and groundbreaking discipline were challenging on many levels, especially when after the first few years the student numbers increased dramatically. But without his relentless commitment to the constant developments and innovations of the discipline, and dedication to increasing resources and finding staff, the department of Media Studies would not be what it is today, including two large BA programs and eight MA programs with in total over 1500 national and international students. One of the cutting-edge MA programs that Thomas Elsaesser designed is the MA Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image that in 2018 celebrated its fifteenth anniversary. This MA program was established in collaboration with the Amsterdam EYE Film Museum and the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, and is one of the world leading archival and curatorial programs of audio-visual heritage.

In terms of PhD programs and research, Thomas Elsaesser was part of the founding board of the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA) known for its original interdisciplinary humanities approach. With Amsterdam University Press, he launched the book series Film Culture in Transition. In 2016 the fiftieth volume in this series was celebrated with an event that included many of the series’ international authors. In this book on film history as media archaeology and digital cinema, Thomas Elsaesser returns to one of the subfields of media studies that he helped to establish: media archaeology. 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.

Thomas Elsaesser dedicated the last ten years of his life to the heritage of his grandfather Martin Elsaesser, the German architect of among others the Central Market in Frankfurt. With his family he created a foundation to preserve the legacy of his well-known grandfather and he made a poignant essay film The Sun Island that consists primarily of Super 8 home movies shot by Hans-Peter Elsaesser. The film moves between Berlin and Frankfurt, spanning the period from the interbellum and war years to the present, showing not only architectural monuments but also daily and family life and ideas about sustainability and recycling before the current ecological turn. Touring the world with the film, Thomas Elsaesser’s love for and allegiance to the cinema was very apparent.

Thomas Elsaesser’s sudden loss has shocked his family, friends, colleagues and former students. His vast knowledge, curiosity about new developments in media, art and culture, and provocative insights and sense of humor will be missed. Three generations of his students will be presenting at the annual conferences of the Society of Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) and the European Network of Cinema and Media Studies (NECS) and in other parts of the world. We owe him a lot.

Patricia Pisters
One of his first PhD students in Amsterdam, longtime collaborator and successor at the Department of Media Studies, University of Amsterdam