Thomas Elsaesser, An Amazing Presence

Thomas Elsaesser, An Amazing Presence
Michael Punt
January 2020

Professor Thomas Elsaesser (1943 - 2019)

An Amazing Presence

On December 4th 2019 Thomas Elsaesser, the eminent film scholar, died unexpectedly in Beijing while on a lecture tour. Tributes to his scholarship and memories of those who worked with him can be found on-line. Prof. Patricia Pisters, a long-time colleague, has given her own thoughts and overview of his work at https://necsus-ejms.org/in-memoriam-thomas-elsaesser/, there many others. Thomas’ work was ongoing and as vital as ever. His vision was always ‘in the moment’ and his passing is a great loss to those of us who knew him and all of us who are concerned with how some technologies of representation became industrialised in the twentieth century and shape human cognition today. He was one of those exceptional academics who was both a fastidious historian utterly committed to evidence based cultural analysis and a restless curiosity always searching for and ready to engage with new topics and concerns. We met in 1989 when his work in the secessionist years of New Film History and my own fascinations with new media, experimental film and early cinema drew me to the University of East Anglia. Beyond these concerns we also shared an interest in the opportunities that personal computers (fairly new then) and Laser Discs (now obsolete) could offer to a small band of scholars trying to make sense of the ever-increasing amount of films that were becoming available for close analysis as studio back libraries were monetized. In pioneering this approach (against the grain for many purists) Thomas was more than most prepared to grapple with film history as a story that, in the twenty first century, needed to be told in the present and in full recognition of its own cultural and technological genealogy. 

When he was appointed to the University of Amsterdam in 1991 he established the first faculty of Film and Television Studies in the Netherlands and a year later I found myself working there with him at the very moment when electric typewriters were giving way to keyboards and VDUs, and world-wide communications underwent a step-change in public access. His embrace of that in the academic context of film studies was exceptional and academically risky. It demanded speculation that had to be supported by more than wild hunches, and his energetic review of the work in this field across the world enabled an approach that (among other things) proposed a useful homology between the cinema in its early years and the cultural experience of the internet as an easily paraphrased technology that, like cinema was initially without a stable institutional structure. In this there are lessons for us all in how we should think about visual technology as an idea that takes shape in the world through changing forms and shifting constituencies.

As the many tributes reveal, this was only one of his many academic concerns in which he was a recognized authority but it was one that I was fortunate enough to engage with first hand, and one that has resonance with the concerns of Leonardo. Always busy, demanding and anxious to complete half a dozen projects, Thomas was also a supervisor whose kindness was to stop what he was doing and listen patiently to nascent ideas that, certainly in my case, many people thought were outrageously speculative. Nonetheless, his support was invaluable and crucial in bringing them into some sort of order that could be supported and made sense. He was an amazing presence and his ideas will be forever hovering over familiar films as they unravel. But in his absence, the rigour and thoughtfulness of his encounters with new ideas about technology and media and his willingness to share them will remain the benchmark against which research and publication in the field must be measured.

Michael Punt

December 2019.