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Thomas Elsaesser, film scholar with a broad view, dies at 76
Thomas Elsaesser, Buenos Aires, 2007

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Thomas Elsaesser, an influential German-born film scholar and teacher whose writings brimmed with a fascination for Hollywood melodramas, the works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Weimar-era movies, died Dec. 4 in Beijing. He was 76.

His wife, Silvia Vega-Llona, said he had been on a lecture tour in China and was found in his hotel room after he had failed to show up for an appearance. He later died of cardiac arrest in a hospital, she said.

“I spoke to him a few hours before he died and he was fine,” she said by phone.

Elsaesser’s many books and more than 200 essays established him, beginning in the mid-1970s, as a leading figure in film criticism. He also started and ran major film studies departments at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, England, and the University of Amsterdam.

“He was there when modern film studies was really beginning, when the understanding of film was switching from ‘I like that film’ to actually studying it,” Dana Polan, a professor of cinema studies at New York University, said in a phone interview.

In the early 1970s, Elsaesser (pronounced el-SASS-er) founded Monogram, a British film journal, where he wrote three essays about classical Hollywood films that built his international reputation.

One essay, “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama,” analyzed films by director Douglas Sirk, who was also German, and the “melancholy energy” that colors, sets and camera movements create in melodramas.

“In the Hollywood melodrama, characters made for operettas play out the tragedies of mankind, which is how they experience the contradictions of American civilization,” Elsaesser wrote. “Small wonder they are constantly baffled and amazed, as Lana Turner is in ‘Imitation of Life,’ about what is going on around them and within them.”

Elsaesser memorably described the melodramatic story of Sirk’s “Written on the Wind” (1956): “Dorothy Malone wants Rock Hudson who wants Lauren Bacall who wants Robert Stack who just wants to die.”

Elsaesser did not just look backward at old Hollywood films. He also wrote about Fassbinder, the prolific and iconoclastic director who played a critical part in the resurgence of German cinema in the 1970s with films like “The Marriage of Maria Braun” and “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.” Fassbinder died at 36 in 1982.

An early essay by Elsaesser in “Fassbinder” (1976), edited by Tony Rayns, elevated the director’s profile for English-speaking cinephiles. Elsaesser’s book “Fassbinder’s Germany: History Identity Subject” (1996) offered a much broader assessment of his work.

When he considered “Despair” (1978) in the Fassbinder volume, Elsaesser described the director’s body of work as a “magnificent, but also always magnificently failing, efficiently deficient identity machine.” Fassbinder’s characters, he wrote, have “antagonistic doubles, each with a bewildering array of mirroring possibilities.”

Thomas Peter Elsaesser was born on June 22, 1943, in Berlin and moved to Mannheim with his family when he was about 8. His father, Hans, was an engineer for Siemens, the German industrial conglomerate. His mother, Trudell, was a landscape designer.

As a boy, Thomas was introduced to Hollywood pictures by his maternal grandmother, who had a fondness for Burt Lancaster, and to European art films by his parents.

“So I grew up with two apparently conflicting cinematic traditions,” he said in an interview at a conference held in 2014 by the scholarly Society for Cinema and Media Studies. He had “a love of Hollywood movies, melodramas, weepies, action films,” he said, “and a deep respect for European cinema at the same time.”

Elsaesser studied Russian and Polish literature at the University of Heidelberg before leaving for England, where he graduated from the University of Sussex with a bachelor’s degree in English and French comparative literature. He had started a film magazine and ran a film club at the university.

He spent eight months in Paris between 1967 and 1968 at studying further at the Cinémathèque Française, the great film archive, where he recalled seeing 600 films and filling many bound notebooks with comments jotted down in the dark. He then returned to England, where he started a film journal, Brighton Film Review, which was succeeded by Monogram.

He earned a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Sussex in 1971. His dissertation compared the histories of the French Revolution written by Jules Michelet and Thomas Carlyle.

Elsaesser was hired by the University of East Anglia in 1972 and taught European Romanticism and literary modernism there. He soon added film courses to his workload and began the university’s film studies department in 1976. He was the department’s chairman for a decade before leaving to join the University of Amsterdam in 1991, where he built a vibrant film and television studies department. After retiring in 2008, he was a visiting professor at Columbia and Yale.

His books also include “New German Cinema: A History” (1989), “Weimar Cinema and After” (2000), “European Cinema: Face to Face With Hollywood” (2005) and “Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses,” with Malte Hagener (2010).

In a tribute posted this month on the website of Necsus, a media studies journal, Hagener wrote that Elsaesser’s intellectual curiosity had been “so immense and unstoppable that it could become threatening at times.” A conversation with him was demanding, Hagener said, because “he kept on asking and pushing ahead.”

Elsaesser’s relentlessness had its purpose, he added. “Film studies was not a game,” he wrote. “It was no cinephile pub quiz we were involved in.”

In addition to his wife, who teaches art and history of documentary at the New School, Elsaesser is survived by his sister, Regine Elsaesser.

After decades of writing about films, Elsaesser finally wrote and directed one: “The Sun Island” (2017), a documentary that used old family footage, letters and photographs to tell a complex story about his paternal grandfather, Martin, the chief architect of Frankfurt from 1925 to 1932; his grandmother Liesel; and Leberecht Migge, a landscape architect with whom she had an affair.

Elsaesser was moved to create the film after plans were announced to structurally alter the historic Wholesale Market Hall in Frankfurt, which Martin Elsaesser had designed in the 1920s, to make way for the new headquarters of the European Central Bank, which opened in 2014.

“I didn’t suddenly discover that I wanted to be a filmmaker,” he said in an interview in 2018. “I usually say I’m not a filmmaker; I just happened to make a film.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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