Postscriptum: Remembering Thomas Elsaesser

Thomas Elsaessser presenting at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum, Frankfurt 2009. Photograph: Floris Paalman.
Igor Krstic remembers the film scholar Thomas Elsaesser and reflects on his impact as a teacher and mentor.

I can add only little to what Floris already outlined in his piece in regard to Thomas Elsaesser’s scholarly concepts and wide-ranging interests, including those relevant to the Mediapolis readership. What I can confirm, from a more personal point of view perhaps, is what Floris already mentioned, namely that he was particularly capable of drawing illuminating connections to other fields such as sociology, historiography, philosophy or psychology – often in ingenious, sometimes perplexing ways. In other words, Thomas Elsaesser was truly someone who thought outside the box. Additionally, and perhaps because of that, he was capable of foreseeing trends and developments that others would only realize years later.

My first encounter with Elsaesser was when I read one of his texts as an undergraduate student. I was writing a paper on Holocaust representations in film, and I can remember how I underlined almost every second passage of his article on Schindler’s List, which explored the notion of postmodern historiography by unfolding layer after layer and context after context in regard to Spielberg’s film.1Thomas Elsaesser, “Subject Positions, Speaking Positions: From Holocaust and Heimat to Shoah and Schindler’s List,” in The Persistence of History, ed. Vivian Sobchack (New York: Routledge, 1996), 235-287. This was not a simple exercise in close reading. Since Thomas was in my opinion truly a historian at heart – he did his PhD at the University of Sussex on the French Revolution – he was not only interested in dissecting the film as a crossover between New Hollywood auteurism and the post-classical blockbuster, but also, and more interestingly, as a symptom of history, as a kind of Euro-American gravitational center that connects discourses on melodrama and mourning work, on collective trauma and archival (audiovisual) memory.

After I read a few more of his articles and books, particularly those on pre- and postwar German cinema, I was lucky enough to be accepted as one of his Masters students at the University of Amsterdam. I first met him in 1998, when I started my postgraduate studies at the Film and TV department he had founded a few years earlier, in 1991. At that time, I can remember, Thomas was particularly interested in how the emerging digital technologies would reshape visual culture, everyday life and academia – for instance, how video games would change Hollywood’s narrative structures and visual styles, how DVDs alter the way we analyse or watch films, or how TV and cinema might converge when the digital era fully arrives and what that would mean to disciplines like film studies.2See Thomas Elsaesser and Kay Hoffmann (eds.), Cinema Futures: Cain, Abel or Cable? The Screen Arts in the Digital Age (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1998). There was, for instance, a guest lecture by Lev Manovich that Thomas organized for our MA course, three years before Manovich became more widely known for his groundbreaking The Language of New Media (2001) – a study that explored the intersections between old and new media, the cinema and the computer in particular. These themes Elsaesser would explore more deeply in the next two decades, helping to establish the field of media archaeology.3Thomas Elsaesser, Film History as Media Archaeology: Tracking Digital Cinema (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016).

I also remember that Elsaesser encouraged us at that time to read Manuel Castells’s three volumes on The Rise of the Network Society (1996–98) – now considered groundbreaking work on the sociology of globalization. Elsaesser, always looking for new inspirations and thinking outside the box, was, of course, also highly interested in new political and economic trends and research – globalization was a developing paradigm at that time ­– but perhaps more profoundly in the intersections between sociology and psychology, an interest that he might have picked up from the Frankfurt School. After all, Elsaesser not only discovered his love for cinema during the 1960s, he also grew up in Mannheim and studied in Heidelberg. Both cities are located only 80 kilometers from Frankfurt – Germany’s hotspot of the ’68 revolts and one of the nation’s intellectual centres before reunification. Many of his articles are indeed excellent exercises in historical materialism and dialectics – for instance, his article on a genre that he coined the “mind game film”,4Thomas Elsaesser, “The Mind-Game Film”, in Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, ed. Warren Buckland (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 13-41. which closes with the argument that these kinds of films teach audiences the “new rules of the game”: the challenges of post-industrial working environments amidst digitization and automation.

When he supervised my Master’s thesis, which dealt with trauma theory, the horrors of the Bosnian War and Serbian nationalism in the post-Yugoslav film and media context, his book on Fassbinder – with the programmatic title Fassbinder’s Germany – was of great help to me, since it explored how the nation / the national imagery is mirrored in and through films.5Thomas Elsaesser, Fassbinder’s Germany: History Identity Subject (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996). The book drew a lot from social psychology and was full of references to Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, as well as (particularly relevant in the German context) to Alexander Mitscherlich and Theodor W. Adorno’s studies on fascism, authoritarian characters, the fatherless society and paranoid public spheres – which I found revealing with regard to the nationalist-fascist developments in my parents’ home countries during that time.

Years later, when I did my PhD – by coincidence in the town where he grew up, in Mannheim – I asked the already retired Elsaesser to give a guest lecture on world cinema at our graduate school. In return, he asked me to translate his lecture into German, which I did and which, to be honest, dizzied my mind for a few weeks.6Thomas Elsaesser, „World Cinema: Realismus, Evidenz, Präsenz” in Welterzeugung durch Bilder, ed. Cornelia Bohn, Arno Schubbach, Leon Wansleben (Stuttgart: Lucius & Lucius, 2012), 386-402. Here I rediscovered Elsaesser again through working with one of his brilliant, multi-layered texts, which explored yet another interdisciplinary contact zone, that between film and philosophy. In “World Cinema: Realism, Evidence, Presence” Elsaesser argued that a new (post-Bazinian / post-postmodernist) realist ontology had resurfaced in both film and philosophy.

My final encounter with Elsaesser revolved around the essay film.7See Elsaesser’s contribution to the Mediapolis Roundtable ‘The Essay Film and the City’ and Thomas Elsaesser and Agnieszka Piotrowska, „Lovers in Time: An Essay Film of Contested Memories“, in World Cinema and the Essay Film, eds. Brenda Hollweg and Igor Krstic, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2019, 138-157. It was probably again some kind of coincidence that I decided to do my postdoctoral research on a topic that Elsaesser was increasingly interested in too, but which he would explore towards the end of his life not only theoretically, but also practically, as a filmmaker. The Sun Island (2017) – already mentioned above by Floris – is an essay film that combines many of Elsaesser’s various interests and influences: the city of Frankfurt, media archeology, audiovisual memory, family melodrama (including an Oedipal triangle), German prewar and postwar history. It is also a film that provides us with many biographical insights into a man that shaped not only my scholarly path profoundly.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.