ELSA RASSBACH

Producer - Writer

Elsa Rassbach is an activist, journalist, and filmmaker who has devoted her 50-year career to bringing stories of resistance to the screen and into the political mainstream in the United States and in Germany. 


Her paternal grandfather, a German-American businessman, was part of the conservative antiNazi resistance movement most known for a failed assassination attempt against Hitler in1944. Her father left Germany in 1938 and came to the U.S. in 1939. Her mother, whose roots were Irish, was from Colorado, where Rassbach grew up. As a high school student, she held a parttime job in a Sears & Roebuck store and was president of the Rocky Mountain Association of Liberal Religious Youth and active in the Civil Rights movement and on behalf of migrant field workers. 


As a scholarship student at Smith College, she received the B. A. magna cum laude in Art with a minor in Philosophy in 1965. With the assistance of a German government DAAD scholarship, she then studied philosophy and comparative religion as a graduate student at the Free University of West Berlin, where she first learned German. In 1967 she was the second woman admitted to the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin (DFFB), where she studied filmmaking with colleagues like Wolfgang Petersen, Harun Farocki, and Helke Sander, receiving the Diploma in 1972. During her student years in Berlin, she was also a well-known activist against racism and the Vietnam War, as described in several books. 


Her first film, HIS-STORY (1972), an ironic docudrama about the German feminist leader, Clara Zetkin, became a feminist classic in Germany and is still often screened. Thereafter, she began work on a documentary about the Flint sit-down Strike in Michigan in 1936-37; she shot material with the auto union strike leaders who had fled to Paris during the McCarthy Era and returned to the U.S. in 1972 to complete research and production on the film. In 1973, she wrote a treatment for an extended public television series on the history of American labor for WGBH, the Boston public television station. 


She was then invited to join the team that launched the long-running WGBH NOVA series, where she worked on diverse programs, including "War from the Air," a compilation documentary; "The Woman Rebel," a docudrama starring Piper Laurie as birth-control campaigner Margaret Sanger, and on NOVA's most popular first season program, "Strange Sleep," a docudrama about the discovery of anaesthesia and winner of the Peabody Award, for which she received a writing and directing credit. While working on NOVA, she continued to develop her concept for a major public television series on the history of American workers, MADE IN U.S.A., for which The Killing Floor became the "pilot" production. 


In 1975, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) provided development financing for the series, with Rassbach as Series Producer, and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations also contributed. Working closely with leading historians of labor and social history, such as Herbert Gutman, David Brody, Philipp Taft, Eric Foner and Alice Kessler-Harris and many others, as well as younger scholars engaged in pathbreaking research, she reached out to a large community of professional screenwriters and directors who were eager to tackle this longneglected subject matter. Loring Mandel became the dramatic Script Consultant. In 1977, she founded the nonprofit company, Public Forum Productions, Ltd., to which NEH provided further significant development support. In 1980 she was named the series' Executive Producer in a co-production agreement of her firm with WGBH. 


It was decided that the MADE IN U.S.A. Series would be made up of ten full-length dramatic films taking place in different times and places during the first American century of industrialization (ca. 1835 - 1945), each film focusing on an "untold story". With the assistance of historians, Rassbach pieced together the life experiences of little-known historical protagonists through original research in archival source materials such as letters, diaries, newspaper stories, and transcripts of hearings and trials. She wrote treatments for all ten films, focusing on dramatic conflict related to gender, race, and ethnicity as well as to social class. 


For three of the film projects, she engaged Writers Guild (WGA) screenwriters to write screenplays based on the full-length stories with detailed character and plot development that she had written. The screenplays included Lost Eden (working title "Lowell Fever"), about New England farm girls who became feminists and labor activists when working in the textile mills in Lowell, MA, in the 1840s; McLuckie's Luck about the mayor of Homestead, PA, a skilled steelworker and union leader who in 1892 faced a corporate lockout backed by federal troops; and The Killing Floor, about black and white slaughterhouse workers in Chicago, on which she had collaborated with Obie-Award-winning African-American playwright Leslie Lee for several years. For these three film projects she also secured locations and worked with Producer George Manasse to develop production plans and budgets. The three screenplays with production budgets were submitted to NEH in 1979. 


In February 1980, NEH selected The Killing Floor as the first film of the labor history series to be produced and offered partial production financing. Matching financing needed to be obtained, but the usual corporate underwriters of public television programs had shown little interest. However, following Rassbach's interview with The New York Times in February 1980 regarding difficulties in financing the labor series, PBS was finally persuaded to also allow unions to contribute matching financing. Over the following two years, she obtained donations to her firm from more than forty unions as well as special waiver agreements with the entertainment guilds and unions that reduced labor costs for the production. Donations from two corporations and a license agreement from the new PBS American Playhouse drama series (without a theatrical window) completed the modest $1.2 million budget. Rassbach opened the production office for The Killing Floor in Chicago in January 1983. She then engaged Bill Duke to direct the film based on his strong record as an actor and television director as well as his deep feeling for the subject matter. Many others who later enjoyed successful careers in the entertainment industry received first feature film credits on The Killing Floor, including Production Designer Mahed Ahmad and Chicago actors Dennis Farina and Dan Mahoney. In post-production, she worked for seven months in NY with pioneering AfricanAmerican editor John Carter and composer Elizabeth Swados. Her son and only child was born a week after she delivered the completed film to American Playhouse. 


Following the PBS premiere in April,1984, The New York Times praised The Killing Floor and stated that the film made a strong case for the extended series. In 1985, she received the Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Award on behalf of the production, followed by many more awards and festival invitations for the film, including from Cannes. 


Despite these accolades, the obstacles to financing production of the complete labor series had only increased during the Reagan years. Rassbach therefore decided to produce and direct her screenplay for Lost Eden, about the women textile workers in Lowell, as her feature film debut. NEH and unions provided partial production financing to her new nonprofit firm, Made in U.S.A. 27 Productions, Inc. but financing from public television to complete the budget was not forthcoming. In 1993 she directed scenes from her screenplay on location in Lowell and was then invited to the American Film Institute Conservatory as a Directing Fellow or a Screenwriting Fellow, at her option.  


Instead Rassbach returned to Berlin to write a dramatic screenplay based on her experiences as a student activist there in the 1960s and 70s with support from the Hessian public film foundation. She was then able to relaunch the film project, Lost Eden, about the mill workers in Massachusetts, as a German production with development support from public film-financing foundation headed by Dieter Kosslick, later the director of the Berlinale. She was producerwriter-director of the film project, and the Polish director Agnieska Holland was her directorial mentor. But the German co-production company was part of the German Kirch Group media consortium that went bankrupt in 2002. Rassbach retains all rights to this film project and others in the labor series. 


Since 2003 Rassbach has become internationally known as a peace-and-justice activist, working on diverse projects and themes in this arena, and has organized and led successful press campaigns, speaking tours, events, and lobbying efforts. She leads the German and international efforts since 2012 -- which have so far been successful -- to persuade the German parliament (Bundestag) not to authorize the acquisition of armed drones for the German military on ethical grounds. She is a frequent public speaker and has written numerous articles in German and in English for publications ranging from scholarly journals to newspapers; she has also conducted a number of noteworthy interviews. She has made several independent short films in conjunction with her peace work, including We Were Soldiers in 'the War on Terror (2012), distributed by Displaced Films and Amazon, Seeing Gaza, Where Our Bombs Fall (2014), an Official Selection of MEDIMED 2015, the Euro-Mediterranean Documentary Market, and Resistance at Gate 9 (2018) on civil disobedience at a northern German drone base. 


Her current film project is a feature-length semi-dramatic autobiographical documentary, Dad Has a Strange German Accent (working title), that explores the long-term impact on her father, herself and other U.S. family members of her mysterious German-American grandfather's involvement in the failed resistance against Hitler and the Nazi regime. The film was financed for development by Medien- und Filmgesellschaft Baden-Württemberg, the Media Program of the European Union and the Rias Berlin Commission. The film, which is now in post-production, is based in part on Rassbach's extensive original research and was shot from 1994 to 2017 in the U.S. and in Germany.