The Ister (2004) is a film of tangents, both intellectual and literal: the filmmakers, David Barison and Daniel Ross, use a trip down the Danube to loosely structure a series of reflections on Martin Heidegger’s lectures on Hölderlin’s poem ‘The Ister’. As befits a film whose central philosophical notion is that experience is about becoming, not being, there is a constant expansion of the parameters of debate. And so, alongside charting the vagaries of Heidegger’s thought through interviews with contemporary French philosophers, The Ister encompasses a history of Western philosophy, European politics, the geographical formation of land and Greek myth.
The filmmakers invite the viewer, like the contemporary philosophers that they interview, to make connections independently as the film proceeds without any singular restrictive programmatic aim. For instance, a chance meeting with a botanist on the bank of the Danube leads to an impromptu mini-lecture on the centrality of rivers to human survival. This unexpected encounter resonates in a number of surprising ways with the planned interviews. Firstly it echoes a passage from Hölderlin’s ‘The Ister’, quoted in the film, in which he writes of humans settling by the Ister ‘for rivers make arable/The land’. When first reading the lines their formal and slightly awkward poetic diction makes them sound like romanticisation. However after the botanist’s speech one sees that the poem’s apparent romanticisation of the river can actually also be viewed conversely as an expression of scientific truth. In this way ostensible opposites are shown to work in tandem. This is a motif that works throughout the film, as when Prometheus and Epimetheus – defined respectively as figures of memory and forgetfulness – are paired, as the same face is used to represent both of the gods. The montage of the film mirrors this connection as it plays on the fine line between remembering and forgetting. Images are introduced before they can be completely understood, forgotten about, then reintroduced to provoke new associations. An image of a bronze star is repeated throughout the film, but it is only in a latter section that it is revealed to be the bronze star that studs Heidegger’s grave. Used in this way the star signals Heidegger’s idea, as explained by Bernard Stiegler, that death is the one experience that you can’t live and the only experience guaranteed to happen to you, and that once this apparently conclusive event is seen as a phantasm all fixed points become suspect. The star of Heidegger’s grave haunts the film and enacts this theory as it is revealed to hold a hidden significance that disorientates the viewer once revealed, thereby showing the phantasmal nature of supposedly fixed points. This is nicely embodied by the image of a bronze star that literally has eight fixed points, but symbolically stands for indeterminacy. The botanist’s interview can stand as a paradigm of the structure of the film, as the constant extension of subject is mirrored in the fact that the film doesn’t end at its ostensible endpoint – the source of the Danube – but instead extends beyond to find another source. This multiplication of ends and aims is borne out in both the content and structure of the film.
This creates an interesting dynamic with the audience as the breadth and density of the subjects discussed creates a barrage of data that denies complete comprehension. As Daniel Ross (the co-director) remarked, ‘the impossibility of holding everything together in one’s head, and of putting all the pieces together intelligibly in one sitting, is […] something the audience is forced to acknowledge’. The film offers a disorientating experience of spectatorship that oscillates between informing the viewer – the anticipated intent of a documentary – and exposing both how fallible that information is and how inadequate one’s own mental capacity is to absorb it all in one sitting. The Ister repeatedly draws attention to the fact that the readings of Heidegger that are offered in the film are refracted through each of the philosophers’ own personal opinions. The film also foregrounds its lack of interest in providing definitive information or interpretation. This is epitomised in its opening quotation, taken from a remark Heidegger made of his lecture series on Hölderlin’s poetry: it is meant to ‘provide a few markers, signs that call our attention, pauses for reflection’. The filmmakers provide a series of meditations on Heidegger’s thought that do not necessarily build into a coherent body of knowledge, but rather branch off, digress and stop short, like the Ister itself.
Read The Ister: http://jacketmagazine.com/27/hold-trans-2.html Watch The Ister: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ister-DVD-Region-Import-NTSC/dp/B002EOVWTS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1381751962&sr=8-1&keywords=the+ister