Thomas Elsaesser (1943-2019)

In Memoriam Paul Spehr, Eileen Bowser and Thomas Elsaesser

            “It has been difficult for me to write about the losses our field and myself personally have suffered with the end of 2019. Difficult, because of the pain of the loss, but also because I feel some need to try to indicate how important these people were, which is hard to describe in the midst of grief. This loss was so personal to me, which makes it more painful.  These people were not only my colleagues but my friends, indeed my mentors. To tackle this personal connection first, I can state with no exaggeration that without the support of these three people I cannot imagine my work on early cinema being possible. Paul Spehr was at the Motion Picture Division of the Library of Congress when I first undertook my research into D.W. Griffith’s Biograph films in 1974. Although I think he was skeptical about my need to book so much time in the Library’s viewing facilities (I was there watching films on the Steenbeck every day from 8:30 in the morning for the whole summer of 1974—the summer of the Nixon impeachment hearings), he ended up unwavering in his support of my research. As my work began to emerge he was a most valuable critic and advisor. Thomas Elsaesser’s anthology Early Cinema: Space Frame Narrative published in 1990 officially recognized early cinema as an important field for film studies, and I was honored that he included four of my essays in it. Finally, speaking of Eileen Bowser is the most difficult because I owe her the most. As curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art, she preserved the Griffith heritage, and when she launched the Griffith retrospective in 1975 she brought me on board along with Ron Mottram as guest curator. Working with her on this retrospective forged a friendship and interaction that then led to my involvement with the FIAF project she devised with David Francis, Cinema: 1900-1906, which undertook to view all prints existing in FIAF archives from those years and present our findings at a FIAF conference in Brighton, England in 1978. Not only did this symposium of international scholars inaugurate a revision of the way early cinema was thought about, it also brought together film scholars and archivists in a new way. This was Eileen’s dream and her achievement, and it led to many other projects that followed in the wake of Brighton. Eileen was essential to my dissertation on the Biograph films of Griffith as a most trusted adviser, and I dedicated the book version to her and my PhD advisor Jay Leyda. As long I lived in the New York area she was my touchstone for both information and inspiration. I regret now that as I moved away geographically I did not do a better job of keeping in touch.

            “I apologize that my personal involvement takes up such a large part of this tribute to these three scholars, but I could not avoid acknowledging my personal debts. Neither the loss nor the debt are purely my own. Our field of film studies owes so much to these three. As I have indicated, they had a tremendous effect particularly on the field of early cinema: Spehr and Bowser as film archivists preserved our heritage as well as writing brilliantly on this period as film historians. Thomas Elsaesser was not only (or even primarily) a film historian, but quite simply one of the founders of contemporary film studies with an enormous list of publications in so many areas and an international career as a teacher of film and founder of the film studies department at University of Amsterdam. Spehr and Bowser were what we might call activist historians, influential within the archival field, but also willing to venture out into the realm of academic conferences and make contributions as important authors in their own right. Eileen Bowser’s volume in the Scribner’s History of American Cinema book, The Transformation of Cinema 1907-1915 is not only the definitive treatment of this important era, it is a model of scholarship and clear writing.  Paul Spehr’s still fairly recent book The Man who Made Movies: W. K. L. Dickson is, in my opinion, along with Charles Musser’s book on Edwin Porter, the finest work on a figure in early cinema, the most thorough treatment not only of Dickson, but also of the whole process of the “invention” of film as it emerged from Edison’s laboratory.  Eileen and Paul were of the generation of archivists who went beyond mere preservation to creating a full understanding of film history based in its material remains. They were guardian angels of cinema.

            “I cannot undertake an attempt to summarize Thomas Elsaesser’s work, covering as it does as many decades as subjects: European Cinema of recent years; German cinema from Weimar to Fassbinder and beyond; Film theory; and Media Archeology. Thomas covered everything. He was voracious, curious, insightful, and sometimes almost seemed intent to absorb everything to do with film. His essays could illuminate a neglected area in a new way. I think not only of his discovery of early cinema or his thoughts on 3-D film, but especially his pioneering essay on melodrama in film which opened up a new realm of critical investigation with the most illuminating and clever prose. He was the most international of scholars, having taught in the UK, the Netherlands, the US and lectured everywhere. Born in Berlin during WWII in spite of his Jewish identity, it makes odd sense that he died in Beijing. Like the movies, he could travel anywhere and be understood, a cinematic pilgrim.

            “I hold on not only to the lessons I learned from these three, and my memories of them, but to a few particular mementos, tangible and intangible.  From Eileen is my copy of The Biograph Bulletins 1908-1912, precious documents that she edited, its binding in a sad state due to constant thumbing during my work on Griffith. With Paul it is a postcard of a drawing by the German caricaturist Heinrich Zille which he sent me in tribute to my book on Lang. With Thomas there are two intangibles, our last meeting, about a month before his death at my retirement event at the University of Chicago, where he projected an image from a recent conference in Rome of the two of us in conversation that had been posted on Facebook, and which someone had commented on in Italian, saying, “Excuse me, but who are these people?”  I was in Beijing in the end of November but left shortly before he arrived there for his last lecture.  We had thought we might meet, but realized our schedules were off by a day or two. That failed meeting will always haunt me.

– Tom Gunning (7 January 2020)