Emeritus Professor Thomas Elsaesser: an obituary

Thomas Elsaesser - photo by Amanda Gedeon

A driving force behind film research: Thomas Elsaesser. Photo by Amanda Gedeon.

10 December 2019

Professor Thomas Elsaesser passed away unexpectedly on 4 December in Beijing. Elsaesser was the founder of the first Film and Television Studies programme at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). Eye looks back with great affection to its association with Elsaesser, particularly in setting up the Master’s in Preservation & Presentation of the Moving Image in 2002/2003. In 2018 Elsaesser was the keynote speaker at the third Eye International Conference.

 Thomas Elsaesser died suddenly on 4 December in Beijing, to which he had travelled in order to give a lecture. An eminent and extraordinarily knowledgable film expert, Elsaesser was a huge presence in the world of film and film studies. He was a connoisseur of both contemporary film and of film history; and as a film academic he was a pioneer in the field of early cinema and media archaeology.

 Heidelberg, London, Amsterdam

 Emeritus Professor Thomas Elsaesser (Berlin, 1943 - Beijing, 2019) studied at the University of Heidelberg and the University of Sussex (UK), where he gained a BA in English Literature and a PhD in Comparative Literature. After working in Brighton and London as a film critic, from 1972 he lectured in European Romanticism and Literary Modernism at the University of East Anglia. In 1976 he founded the School of Film Studies at the University of East Anglia, and was its chair until 1986.

Eye has very fond memories of its association with Elsaesser, particularly the creation of the MA in Preservation & Presentation at the UvA in 2002/2003. Another memorable occasion was Elsaesser’s keynote address to the first Eye International Conference in 2014, whose theme was ‘The Future of Obsolescence’, a subject to which he had turned on many occasions.

 presentation as a duty

 Elsaesser was also present as the keynote speaker of the third Eye International Conference, Activating the Archive, in 2018. On that occasion he argued that a film archive like Eye needed to take presentation just as seriously as it did conservation and restoration. The conference marked the fifteenth year of the MA in Preservation & Presentation of the Moving Image, which had been set up jointly by the UvA, Eye, and Sound and Vision on Thomas Elsaesser’s initiative.

Click here for an in memoriam by Patricia Pisters, current Professor of Film Studies at the University of Amsterdam.

 a life in film

 In 1991 Thomas Elsaesser was appointed by the University of Amsterdam to be the first person in the Netherlands to set up a faculty of Film and Television Studies. From 1991 to 2002 he was the chair of the Film and Television Studies (now Media & Culture) department. During this period he was also the director of a one-year international MA in film studies and visual culture.

From 2001 to 2008 Elsaesser was as a research professor responsible for the ‘Cinema Europe’ PhD programme, hosted together with the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis, a programme which he had also co-founded. After retiring in 2008 he remained actively involved in academic education as an Emeritus Professor. He was a guest professor at Yale University (2006–2012) and at Columbia University (from 2013), and gave lectures and guest lectures all over the world.

In 2017 he completed Die Sonneninsel, a documentary essay-film made using home movies, photographs and letters from his own family archive. Inspired by his grandfather’s legacy – a suitcase full of letters, a handful of poems and a tin box full of Super8 films – Die Sonneninsel documents the career of the city architect Martin Elsaesser in the 1930s and ’40s. The film has been shown at more than 25 international festivals.

Thomas Elsaesser was also the general editor of the Film Culture in Transition series published by Amsterdam University Press. Sixty editions of this series have so far appeared under his editorship.

As a film academic Elsaesser also wrote a great many books, including influential studies of German film history (New German Cinema: A History; Fassbinder's Germany: History Identity Subject) and a groundbreaking book on film theory: Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses. His latest book appeared in 2018, with the intriguing title European Cinema and Continental Philosophy – Film as Thought Experiment. He also published more than two hundred essays in renowned journals such as American Film, Cinema Journal, Film Comment, Screen, and Sight and Sound.

See also http://www.thomas-elsaesser.com