Miriam Hansen dies at 61; scholar of early American cinema

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Miriam Hansen, who introduced a new level of sophistication to film studies with her groundbreaking study of American silent film and research on cinema and the human senses, died of cancer Feb. 5 in Chicago. She was 61.

Hansen was a professor of humanities, cinema and media studies, and English at the University of Chicago. She founded the university’s cinema and media studies program and built it to national prominence.

As a scholar, she analyzed early American cinema through a different lens, paying closer attention to the spectator’s experience and viewing cinema as a new type of public sphere.


Her research resulted in the landmark 1991 book, “Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film.”

Colleagues said one of her most significant contributions was the idea of film as a social force through which modern life could be seen. She referred to the concept as “vernacular modernism.”

“In other words, film had this ability to capture the modern world that maybe the more traditional art forms did not have,” said Tom Gunning, a friend and professor of art history, cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago.

Shortly before her death, she completed a book manuscript on film theorists associated with the Frankfurt School, titled “Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno.”

Dorothea Miriam Bratu was born in Germany on April 28, 1949, the daughter of Jewish parents who had fled the country, then returned after the war. She received her doctorate in 1975 from Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. Her early work focused on English and American literature, and she wrote a dissertation on Ezra Pound.

She soon shifted from English to film. In the United States, she taught at Yale and Rutgers universities before coming to Chicago in 1990.


During her job interview with the university, she met history professor Michael Geyer, who later became her husband. An earlier marriage ended in divorce.

Geyer survives her, as does a brother, Micha Bratu.