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Thomas Elsaesser tribute

Columbia University held a memorial for professor Thomas Elsaesser this past Saturday, March 7. He was a visiting professor at the university every Spring term, and was scheduled to teach another class there in 2020. Elsaesser passed away on December 4, 2019, in Beijing, where he was expected to give a lecture. Because of my involvement with his documentary, The Sun Island (Die Sonneninsel, 2017), the university invited me to join many of Elsaesser’s friends, family, and peers and provide a brief introduction to the screening, which I now share. Elsaesser was a mentor and a friend, and I feel extremely fortunate to have known him. 

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It is an honor to present The Sun Island today, and celebrate the life, work, and memory of Professor Thomas Elsaesser. I met Elsaesser here at Columbia, in the Spring of 2015. I was two semesters into my MFA in Filmmaking after being away from academia for eight years, and I signed up for his class on “The Moving Image in the Museum.” Halfway through that semester, I did a presentation on the factory and the museum, and, when I finished packing my things that day, I was surprised to find Elsaesser waiting to tell me that I had brought up things he hadn’t thought of before. I allow myself the indiscretion of this self-compliment to turn that compliment to him: it was a very big deal for me, and the testimony to how influential that was is that I’m now more than halfway through my PhD in the Cinema Studies department at NYU – carrying his letter of recommendation – and am teaching this semester at the Film and Media Studies department here at Columbia, where I was looking forward to seeing him again. 

Despite my serious engagement with that class, I was nonetheless surprised to get an email from Elsaesser a year later asking if I was free to meet him. That day, he told me he was making a film using home movies shot by his father during World War 2, which imaged the complicated relationships in his family tree as well as a complex web of historical disputes and theoretical problems. He wanted to know if I could help him put together a rough cut. By the end of the semester, we had an assembly that added to about 3 hours, and, in that process, I ended up getting to know and work with a very different Thomas Elsaesser than most people in this room: Thomas Elsaesser, the first-time filmmaker. 

That difference would soon become very clear. In the Summer, he wrote me to let me know that the producer of the film had strongly rejected what we did together, and was handing the footage to a professional television editor in Germany, with whom Elsaesser was not supposed to interact. Even though we were working with his own family material memory, and his name had pushed the project financially into reality, we were now experiencing in the flesh the great divide between theory and practice. Elsaesser’s family film was no longer his own. 

His reaction followed the ethos of guerrilla filmmaking: sometimes it’s better to apologize than to ask for permission. The following Spring, we started working together on a bootleg version of his own film, without the knowledge of his producer. Since that version started getting into festivals, they eventually agreed on the existence of two versions of the film. However, as a final demonstration of control, we were only given access to a high-resolution file of the final television edit. The rough footage was off-limits. We then started moving things around, changing the voice-over, and adding occasional materials that we had in good-enough quality (and the media historians in the room can easily track some of those changes by following the inconsistencies in the font of the subtitles). Nonetheless, it was riveting to see Elsaesser’s excitement about the effect these granular operations had on the whole – something that I\’m sure he abstractly knew as a film historian, but was discovering now as a practice. We tweaked this cut until 2018, and that is the version you will see this afternoon – which was the one he always preferred to screen. 

I think it is very clear in the film how Thomas Elsaesser’s experience as a film historian shaped his work as a filmmaker. And I was, of course, looking forward to seeing how his experience as a filmmaker would then shape his work as a historian. Sadly, we’re now prevented from seeing how this unfolds, but, since his passing, I keep going back to the last time I was with him, which was in March of last year. We had an unusually long dinner together, where he talked about how he wanted to continue working with the material of Sun Island, but also shared some of his anxieties about the directions the field of Cinema Studies was heading. Chances are he spoke to some of you about this as well, so maybe together we can assemble a more complete picture of it.

As he saw it, the field was now organized around two dominant branches: one being affect theory – the study of emotions – and the other being the analysis of Poetics, breaking down cinema as a series of formal systems and patterns. His concern was whether these two models fit too well with our current media ecology, and the multinational conglomerates behind them. In the case of affect studies, it\’s the logic of social media, where likes and dislikes determine a new economy of attention that has already been shifting election results worldwide. In the case of structural analysis, it’s the black box of the algorithm used by streaming services, and how it quantizes the aesthetic experience based on viewer response data. He went as far as saying that his suspicion was that streaming services had gotten into production not only for immediate profit, but also to create a large database of how very different films work, which could potentially feed artificial intelligence in a not-so-distant future. In that context, he said, it\’s likely that 99.9% of our scholarship is of no use to them, but he was concerned with the ethical ramifications and the practical consequences of the exceptional 0.1%. 

I wonder how much these reflections are connected to The Sun Island, from his own experience in the process of making the film, to the ethical battle that takes place in the heart of his family. But, above all, this last meal I had with him captures the Elsaesser that I got to know in the way I will remember him: someone who was devoted to finding bridges with the past as ways to move forward. And he will continue to do so through his texts, his friends, and his film.

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