I once had a physicist friend of mine tell me that, unless you can explain what you are doing so that someone outside your discipline can understand, you probably don’t really know what you are doing yourself. Curiously he then didn’t go on to explain to me what it was he was doing down at the particle accelerator, so... well, I was never sure what he was trying to tell me.
The River and the Greeks
I had a similar experience watching The Ister. There are several threads of weighty thought in this film, but sadly they are not outlined at the beginning of the film nor summed at the end. Now whether that means directors David Barison and Daniel Ross have their heads all the way around the subject is unknown to me. There is a lot to The Ister. It’s a very complicated film covering some deep philosophy and it will make you think. One thing I’d like to think is that the directors just forgot to leave a note at the river’s edge before they waded in too far and floated away with the current. There is an accompanying booklet that is helpful, but perhaps a study guide to the booklet would be useful too.
So here’s my shot at a viewer’s guide to some themes in The Ister. First there is the river. Ister is the Ancient Greek name for the Danube (or Danu in German and here’s a clue to the complexity of The Ister... everyone has a different name for the same thing). It originates in Germany and flows south and east through Central Europe to the Black Sea. There’s a fair argument to make that civilization (that is Classical/Greek civilization) came up the Danube to Germany. So there is a nice bit of poetry in the river being a source at both ends and that it ‘flows’ both ways.
Second, there is the German poet Friedrich HÃ¶lderlin (1770-1843) who wrote “The Ister” a hymn to what he saw as the Greek roots to German culture as well as the birth of technology represented by Prometheus’ gift of fire to mankind. Considerable time and energy is expended in the film on the subject of technology and its history and significance to humans.
Heidegger and the Nazis
Then comes the twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger who theorized on the nature of technology and also attempted to explain HÃ¶lderlin’s relevance to Germany from within the Nazi zeitgeist (and maybe put a little philosophical meat on National Socialism’s bones). The film focuses on a famous 1942 lecture Heidegger gave on HÃ¶lderlin and his “Ister” poem. I found Heidegger’s writing to be baffling and I’m not alone in that. Apparently the philosophical world is of two camps on the subject of Heidegger, one being the guy is an empty box. It looks like he’s talking but he’s not saying anything. And the other camp sees him as being past profound and having gotten to the very root of... uhm... something or another possibly the implications of technological mankind.
Heidegger is a problem in that he joined the Nazis early on and this was after he had made a name for himself in the world of philosophy. He was (rightly or wrongly) seen as a credible defender and later an apologist for National Socialism. In short, someone who should have known better. He really got himself in hot water when, after the war in 1948, he commented on the impersonal nature of machines and compared mechanized farming to the mechanized death factory at Auschwitz. I think that Heidegger’s ambiguous philosophizing was a good match for the fuzzy logic of the Nazis especially when it came to li
The next theme is what to make of Heidegger. French philosophers Bernard Stiegler, Jean-Luc Nancy Philippe, Lacoue-Labarthe are the real backbone of the The Ister and they struggle mightily to wrestle Heidegger’s work into an acceptable package. Even Stiegler, whose work is in opposition to Heidegger, has to prop the old boy up if for no other reason than to validate his own argument.
Syberberg and You
German director Hans-JÃ¼rgen Syberberg is brought in towards the end (after we’ve followed the Danube to its German source) to do something, but I’m not sure what. He did stage a reading of the poem “The Ister” in Berlin in the 1990s and we’ll credit him with that... and he is German... and he speaks his mind about where he thinks German culture is today. I’m a big fan of Syberberg’s work and he is the reason I was motivated to watch The Ister. So when I finally got to see and hear him, the film seemed to pick up a bit. But if I didn’t know who he was, I’d have to wonder why this guy was included.
There must be something in the air these days. When history has supposedly ended and Ayn Rand is being taken seriously that tells me a lesson forgotten is a lesson that must be learned again. Is fascism making a comeback? Will Heidegger be rehabilitated? It’s hard to say. But if deconstructionist philosophy, archly romantic German poetry featuring a mythic triumph of the will, boat rides up the Danube and razor’s edge flirtation with National Socialism is your cup of espresso, then light up a clove cigarette, and hang on to your beret because someone has finally made a film for you.
The accompanying booklet attempts to explain The Ister. Perhaps the best point made is that this is a philosophical film and not a film about philosophy.
The interview with Werner Hamacher could have found a place in the film proper. His denial of having anything to say about Heidegger’s work, followed by a discourse on the same, was curious.
Picture and Sound
No complaints from me.
How To Use This DVD
You should probably read the included booklet first if for no other reason than to get your head up to speed for the philosophizing to come in the film.