The headiest, head-scratching-est, damnedest, most demanding movie opening this week in New York, The Ister could be simply described as a philosophical travelogue. Or rather a German philosophical travelogue: A countryman of the two filmmakers, David Barison and Daniel Ross, approvingly called the movie “positively un-Australian.”
Named for and made to mark the 300th anniversary of Friedrich H Danubian hymn, this three-hour cine-essay travels upriver from the Danube’s mouth to its source, even as it ponders Martin Heidegger’s 1942 lecture-course on H poem. Going upriver, the documentarians—one of whom wrote his doctoral thesis on Heidegger—seem to reverse the flow of history. The viewer is drenched with the spray of Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods (plus pieces by Bruckner and Schubert), as the DV doc sweeps past the archaeological excavation of an ancient Greek city and notes a contemporary presidential visitation (Romania); passes a succession of recently bombed cities (Serbia) and bridges (Croatia), a Stalin-era model town (Hungary), and a Nazi concentration camp (Mauthausen); and visits two mock classical temples (Bavaria) to wind up in the heart of darkness, the Black Forest cabin where Heidegger wrote Being and Time.
There is evidently a German term for just such an aquatic road movie— wasserstrasse—but The Ister also offers a stream of consciousness. The filmmakers have little to say. There are, however, several voluble intellectuals. Bank robber turned philosopher Bernard Stiegler (the subject of Ross and Barison’s next movie), several Derrideans, and filmmaker Hans-J Syberberg are on hand to gloss or contest Heidegger’s sense of Greek myths, embrace of German nationalism, and notion of technics. The latter is often visualized as islands of debris clogging the river. So too the philosopher: As quoted, Heidegger is largely impenetrable (“modern machine technology is ‘spirit’ ?”) and sometimes outrageous, suggesting that the ancient Greeks are “pure National Socialists” or comparing the “motorized food industry” of the 1948 Berlin Airlift to production of corpses at Auschwitz. It’s enough to justify Samuel Beckett’s laconic observation that each word is “an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”
Ross and Barison interpolate several passages from Syberberg’s phantasmagorical magnum opus Hitler, a Film From Germany and obviously admire its fearless exhumation of German romanticism. Syberberg, however, clearly thinks they have embarked on an impossible project: “Rivers don’t have that poetic power anymore.” The Ister offers a more modest way of imagining Europe—contemplating its geography as it has shaped and been shaped. Is the humble DV mini-cam the technology that frames the river’s essence? Largely unmediated, the onrushing landscape, however despoiled, provides a lucid Bazinian counterpoint to the babbling brook of Heideggerian seinundzeitis. History is made present, although time and place are in constant flux.