Miriam Hansen, renowned film scholar, 1949-2011

Update: A commemorative gathering to honor the life and accomplishments of Miriam Hansen is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Monday, March 14, in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. This University memorial service is open to the entire University community and the public.

Film scholar Miriam Hansen, who founded the University’s Cinema and Media Studies program, died Saturday, Feb. 5, after a long battle with cancer. She was 61.

Over the course of her career, Hansen, the Ferdinand Schevill Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities, Cinema and Media Studies, English Language and Literature, and the College, made significant contributions to the study of American silent film and film theory. Her 1991 book Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film is considered a landmark work in the study of early cinema.

Hansen also was an expert on the film theorists associated with the Frankfurt School, including Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Alexander Kluge and Siegfried Kracauer. Shortly before her death, she completed a book manuscript on the work of these thinkers, entitled Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno, a sustained reflection on the historicity of cinema and the challenges of the present.

Film was never far from her mind, said her husband, Michael Geyer, the Samuel N. Harper Professor in History and the College, who first met Hansen at her University of Chicago job talk in 1989. “She was the consummate film theorist and film historian, and that expanded into her private life.”

After her arrival at the University of Chicago in 1990, Hansen set out to establish the Committee on Cinema and Media Studies, initially an expansion of the English Department’s film studies offerings. Hansen hoped that the program, which encompassed theory and criticism and ranged across disciplines, would broaden the horizon of students who approach the study of film.

“[The Cinema and Media Studies program] was in every sense her creation,” said Tom Gunning, the Edwin A. and Betty L. Bergman Distinguished Service Professor in Art History, Cinema and Media Studies, and the College.

“Miriam had the most astonishing energy of anyone I’ve ever encountered,” Gunning added. “She was enormously generous in discussing ideas and insights with colleagues and students. She was a meticulous reader, very demanding and tremendously original in her insights. She was just extraordinary.”

“She was someone who kept us honest,” said Yuri Tsivian, the Cinema and Media Studies Department chair, who recalled Hansen’s relentless passion for her work and fierce devotion to the program she founded. “Her work ethic was enormous.”

A native of Germany, Hansen was born April 28, 1949. She received her doctorate from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt in 1975. Her dissertation on Ezra Pound was honored with the Universität Frankfurt’s Publication Award for Outstanding Dissertation, one of many honors Hansen would receive over the course of her distinguished career. She was a three-time winner of the Katherine Singer Kovacs Essay Prize in Film, TV & Video studies, a 1997-1998 Guggenheim Fellow, and a 2007-2008 fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Berlin.

“Miriam worked tirelessly to bring the Film Studies Center and the Cinema and Media Studies program from initial vision to national prominence. It's hard to imagine that anyone else could care as passionately or attend as unremittingly to every detail of building a preeminent program,” said Elizabeth Helsinger, the John Matthews Manly Distinguished Service Professor in English Language and Literature, Art History, and the College. “She also believed very strongly in the obligation to support students in every way: to engage them continuously in an intellectual and social community."

Hansen’s support made a lasting impression on Daniel Morgan, PhD’07, a former student who now teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. “She taught students how to think, in the most basic and far-reaching ways, about cinema as both an institution and an artistic form,” he said. “The results of her teachings are evident in the work and thought of all those who crossed her path, as is her infectious enthusiasm for the films themselves—an enthusiasm she bequeathed to each group of students she encountered.”

Colleagues and friends remember Hansen’s dry wit and her fondness for early film comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. She enjoyed travel, music, talking politics, and discussing art and literature with her husband.

“It was a very intellectual family of two,” Geyer said.

Hansen is survived by her husband and her brother, Micha Bratu. Services were held Feb. 8 at KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation, 1100 E. Hyde Park Blvd. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Miriam Hansen Fellowship Fund, c/o the Division of the Humanities, 1115 E. 58th St., Chicago, IL 60637.