Every collective, no matter if a family, an academic discipline, or a nation, is in need of a story that provides an origin as well as a destiny and purpose, but this story – being an aesthetic object in itself – also contains a surplus, something that reaches beyond the sheer functionality of providing an origin and a destination. This is one of the countless things that I learned from Thomas Elsaesser and it was one of the first. He taught me this as a fresh MA student in film and television studies in Amsterdam in 1996, as I remember it, from an analysis of Blonde Venus (Josef von Sternberg, 1932). The film is mainly remembered for the campy ‘Hot Voodoo’ number in which Marlene Dietrich emerges from a gorilla costume, but the framing story is remarkable too, and this was where Thomas turned our attention. In it, seven US students travel to Germany and spot six naked girls bathing in a pond. The students get chased away, and only the one who stubbornly refuses to leave is ‘rewarded’ by marrying one of the girls. I do not remember exactly what Thomas said about the framing device – Helen (Marlene Dietrich) and Ned (Herbert Marshall) tell the origin story to their young son who wants to hear the ‘Germany story’ over and over again – but it immediately rings a couple of bells that connect it to Thomas’ own preoccupations: the fairy-tale motif and the structure of repetition and alternation; the curiosity of looking and the gender dynamics; the US and Germany as opposed yet mutually attracting poles; the retroactive temporality and causality, to name but a few.
The outburst of grief and shock that swept social media in the days after news of Thomas’ sudden and unexpected death broke is an expression of that desire to hold onto a foundational narrative, to know where one comes from and where one is heading. Everyone in the wider field of film studies, no matter if one met him only very briefly or had a long and lasting relationship with him, has a story or two to tell about a man who was not equally adored by everyone, but who – by his enormous capability and energy – would exert an influence on the field of film studies that one could not elude. Indeed, the stories and photos on Facebook would have been a delightful treasure trove of material for Thomas to ponder and analyse. His productivity which was the result of an enormous will and discipline, but also talent and free-roaming spirit, meant that one had to deal with him one way or another. The texts and books he published, but also circulated freely, the talks he gave, but also the conversations one had with him over shared coffees and drinks – all this contributed to his presence being felt, even if one tried to avoid it.
I had first felt his influence from a distance, almost by proxy, as he would have probably called it. I started studying English literature, media studies, and philosophy in Hamburg in 1992. Thomas had been a guest professor there a couple of years before, in the late 1980s, so his presence could still be felt, as his texts were assigned and his ideas discussed. I was lucky to become a student assistant to a professor of English literature, Johann N. Schmidt, already in my second semester. Among the traditionalists teaching Shakespeare and Dickens, Schmidt showed a keen interest in popular culture (he later wrote a book on skyscrapers) and he proved to have a sharp eye for interesting new intellectual developments – he had been the one who brought Thomas to Hamburg and remained a lifelong friend to him. I later edited a Festschrift with him and Michael Wedel on the occasion of Thomas’ sixtieth birthday. As a student of English literature, I came to the University of East Anglia in 1994 on a DAAD scholarship, where my attention which was already partly on film completely shifted to this domain. Again, I found myself in a place where Thomas had left a lasting influence, but where he had left before I came, as he had moved on to Amsterdam in 1991 to establish the now legendary department in Nieuwe Doelenstraat (the institute has since moved). More or less unwittingly, I had caught the bug that would propel me forward. Given his prolific output and broad interests, I now realise that most people first encountered Thomas by proxy through his texts and ideas – yet again, he lectured and taught so widely (he was always on the move, giving talks and seminars) that if one stayed in the field, one would invariably encounter him in person. This was also true for me.
I had read many of Thomas’ texts, I had heard some of the first stories that circulated about him, I had discussed the arguments he presented on early cinema, on US film, and on New German Cinema. In retrospect, I am not quite sure whether it was a conscious decision to follow the trace that I had sniffed twice now – like a truffle pig and a police dog – or whether it was rather a series of lucky coincidences that brought me to Amsterdam. Instrumental in making the connection and leap was Tim Bergfelder, then a PhD candidate in Norwich, and CineGraph, the Hamburg-based research collective on forgotten aspects of German cinema, where I was working as a student intern. This is but one example of the networks he built across continents and generations, across disciplines and interests. These networks are intricate and marvellous constructions and they are part of the legacy that he leaves behind – again, the explosion of comments, photos, and anecdotes on Facebook are a testimony to their lasting stability and influence. People with a similar cosmopolitan and free-spirited outlook that defied and disdained traditional fault lines and disciplinary cages tended to gravitate towards him, and he was happy to entertain these connections.
Indeed, Thomas was a very faithful friend, a generous interlocutor, and a great communicator – whenever you would send him an email, you would soon get an answer, often within an hour, usually within a day or two. Invariably, you would know that Thomas was in Amsterdam or New York, in Stockholm or Buenos Aires, in Berlin or Tokyo – he kept in touch, and his collected emails would probably be many times larger than his published writings. He also kept track of what you were doing. Sometimes I told him a half-baked idea or a vague plan and he would ask me a year or two later if I had made something of it. In this regard, his memory could be unforgiving almost to the point of menacing you with exactitude, because you could not get away with just turning your back on things you had once thought about. More importantly, underlying this was a deeply felt humanism, a genuine interest in the world and the people he came in touch with. He truly cared. I remember that from my first meeting on, he appeared open-minded and interested in what I had to say, as well as erudite and old-fashioned in that he would rephrase it and make something else out of it. And he could be generous with his time; I have heard so many stories in the past couple of days about long conversations over dinner and drinks which would invariably touch on issues that interested him and were on his mind – but his interests were so broad that he communicated with many people.
In the summer of 2002 I lived a couple of months in his canal-side house from the Dutch Golden Age close to the Rembrandtplein – I was looking for a place to stay and his lodger flat on the third floor happened to be temporarily empty. Even for the early 2000s the rent was ridiculously low, because he knew that I was not earning a lot of money. We would not meet that often because both of us travelled regularly, but I remember one evening when he knocked on my door and asked me if I could read and comment on something he had just written. He loved to test ideas, he constantly needed feedback (which might partly explain his travels and talks that could appear so restless to some observers); his ideas were developed best in an environment of open-minded yet concentrated intellectual curiosity and continual exchange. But Thomas could also delight in other activities and was happy to share them too: during the World Cup we would sometimes watch games together that were shown in the morning because of the time lag between South Korea/Japan and the Netherlands. His interests roamed free and wide, he was playful with words and ideas, but he never appeared idle – there was always an underlying urgency that the issue at hand needed to be worked through and solved. Yet again, any solution that one would come up with was temporary and provisional at best because he loved to turn arguments around, to dialectically challenge any established truth, to develop new terms and interrelations.
His intellectual curiosity and capability was so immense and unstoppable that it could become threatening at times. As stimulating as a conversation with him always was, it could also be demanding, since he kept on asking and pushing ahead, if not stopped. I remember one particular PhD seminar in the ground floor library of his house on Reguliersgracht, when he turned the question whether the current expression of Hollywood was to be called postclassical or postmodern into a debate that – at least in my memory – went on for hours. As obsessive as it appeared to us at the time, it was an exchange I vividly remember and which certainly taught me a lot. Apart from the immediate arguments at hand (and there were many I could still rehearse today), it was mainly a lesson in the ultimate purpose of what we were doing. Film studies was not a game; it was no cinephile pub quiz we were involved in, it was no mere intellectual exercise or scholastic exchange – this was a serious matter which had grave consequences and repercussions. It mattered which terms we chose because it had consequences in many different ways. And this, of course, meant that film studies mattered, that it has an impact in the world, that it could make a difference. Thomas believed passionately in the significance of film – and of film studies. This is probably one of the reasons why he was so charismatic: one could feel the significance of the discipline when one heard him talk and develop ideas in dialogue with one’s own propositions.
He could also appear stern at times, even unrelenting, but he never was stubborn in the sense that he wanted to win an argument or just persist in his viewpoint. If he insisted on something he would always have good arguments to support his point and, more importantly, an agenda why the matter at hand was important. What he really disliked was intellectual sloppiness and carelessness, as well as orthodoxy and the glaciation of thought. There was too much at stake for him; there were so many reasons why we had to think hard in order not to put up with the shittiness of the world. Of course, he would have found much more elegant and appropriate words for phrasing this, so even as I write this I imagine him looking over my shoulder and commenting on it. There was so much to know and work through, so little time and the need to move on and ahead. If he occasionally showed this tough side, then he was always making a point, sometimes forcefully, but always with an ultimate purpose in mind. In his imagination, film had an emancipatory mission – it at least offered the potential to imagine the world as a different place, a better place. Like Deleuze’s emphatic hope that modern cinema would be able to restore our belief in the world, Thomas was a believer. He wanted to believe in the cinema, but at the same time he remained a skeptic, sometimes even an agnostic, because testing this belief was to be the ultimate proof.
The network he wove through his travels and writings, his talks and conversations, had Amsterdam and New York as the main nodes, but it kept on extending, at least to all the places where people were interested in his work. He had a talent for making unexpected connections that all of a sudden appeared entirely logical, of bringing distant people together who would become important colleagues, if not lifelong friends. When I arrived in Amsterdam in 2001, as the first member of the Cinema/Media Europe team, I found a couple of fellow Europeans gathering around him: Melis Behlil and Yeşim Burul from Turkey; Eleftheria Thanouli from Greece; Tarja Laine from Finland; Drehli Robnik from Austria; soon Marijke de Valck and Ward Rennen joined as members of the project team; later came Floris Paalman and Senta Siewert. There were also guests coming in whom Thomas had met on his wide-ranging lecture tours: one Friday it was Petr Szczepanik from Brno, whom I met for the first time in Thomas’ house; another Friday it was Michael Wedel from Potsdam, who happened to be in town and joined our group. In the monthly PhD seminars which had an official starting time, but no clear time when it was over, it went on until it temporarily halted and was resumed in the next session. We looked back at the foundational texts of film studies, but they were always doubled up and contrasted with contemporary material. The discipline, as he understood it, was no museum or archive of landmark articles and petrified arguments, but an ever-changing ecosystem of ideas and configurations that pointed as much to the future as to the past. His first question for a text was normally what problem it was trying to solve, and how it might have been intended in the first place. But he would never stop at situating a text historically. Ideas would be turned around and shaken up, texts were opened and examined to draw connections and establish new links. All this was simultaneously playful and deadly serious.
In 2005 Thomas had been asked to write an introduction to film theory in German. Even though it was his mother tongue, he did not feel as much at home in writing academic German as he did in his elegant English prose. I had translated a number of his texts into German since the late 1990s – a task for which there was normally no remuneration from the publisher, so I was paid by Thomas directly, because he had found a good interlocutor in me. It was partly this collaboration, I guess, that led Thomas to ask me to become his co-author, as I had just finished my PhD and started my first postdoc job at the University of Jena. In a way, my move away from Amsterdam (in which Thomas completely supported me, in fact he recommended me for the position) was also an attempt to leave the shadow that he cast which, I felt, was too large, especially when you were close to him. Therefore, I hesitated regarding what this would mean in terms of further qualification, outside perception, and work load, but soon my own curiosity and interest was sparked by the first preliminary talks we had about the project. The writing process itself went almost effortlessly, text files of the different versions of the different chapters ricocheting back and forth by email, leaving blanks and questions for the other person to fill in, and extending arguments that the other had inserted but one felt deserved more attention. Occasionally we would meet in Amsterdam in the old-style living room with the grand piano and discuss the crucial points we could not work out in writing.
In retrospect, I think about writing the book together with him as an experiment in ventriloquism. My own personal way of writing about film and media, of phrasing particular arguments, even of building sentences and using particular terms was very much shaped by his influence. In fact, his ways of appropriating and transforming ideas and arguments bear a resemblance to speaking in voices – a way of assimilating the other’s thoughts, working it through from the inside-out and forcing it open in the process, thereby turning it around and making something entirely different from it. As voracious as his intellectual appetite was, he also wanted to be devoured in turn. He was impatient when somebody pointed out a minor misreading of an important established figure, while he was delighted when someone took one of his ideas and started to run with it, taking it somewhere that he had not imagined. While we practiced this game of mise-en-abyme, self-othering, and paradoxical dubbing, we did not imagine how successful the book would become. It has since been translated into ten languages.
There is so much more to remember, so many more stories to tell than I can do here – this can only be a beginning. I think of his loving and much-loved wife Silvia Vega-Llona, who, whenever she could be there, provided an indispensable support and base to his sometimes restless wanderings, but who is also an accomplished scholar in her own right. I remember the commitment to his family legacy and the investigative ingenuity with which he turned a couple of old family films and letters into a compelling history of the twentieth century in his film The Sun Island. I think of the department in Amsterdam that he was heading for nearly two decades and the many colleagues he influenced there. And I look upon the countless books and essays he has left us with – but what will be missed most of all is his presence.
In the last couple of years it sometimes seemed as if he doubted film studies – the discipline that he helped to bring into existence and put on the map. Maybe he got bored with increasingly orthodox interpretations, and maybe he had already said most of the things he could contribute to the field. He toyed with the idea that philosophy or art history might be the answer, and might even save us, yet he always came back to film, almost compulsively. He sometimes complained about the way these more traditional disciplines functioned, with their hierarchies and orientation on canon and established status. His curiosity and energy compelled him to find out new things – the eternal truffle pig and pilot fish that pushes ahead, to use two metaphors that he liked to employ. He wanted to move on; he could not stay where he was, neither intellectually nor physically. Hearing the news about his sudden death while giving lectures in China, it is hard to accept that Thomas has ultimately moved on to another place.