Film notes: The Ister

by Marijeta Bozovic


Notes on The Ister (dir. David Barison and Daniel Ross, 2004), 189 min.

Screened in New York University’s Hydropoetics series (curated by Sukhdev Sandhu)

Thank you so much for having me, and to Sukhdev for inviting me. Actually, I feel like I’ve been slightly tricked: I invited Sukhdev to come and speak about hydropoetics at our upcoming symposium on the Danube river upstate at Colgate University, hoping that he would help theorize hydropoetics for me, but he cleverly invited me to speak at an earlier event, so now I am in a place of having to venture a working definition first.

I will do my best, and will attempt to do so backwards—appropriately enough, given the direction of tonight’s film. I will say a few words about the 2004 film The Ister and its experiment: how it challenges and pushes its viewer to think about space and time, politics and philosophy, always mediated by water and by film. In the process, I may stumble on a working example of hydropoetics, a term perhaps coming into vogue but that points to way of asking questions that seems not only relevant but suddenly always-already-there and utterly necessary.

In essence, I will attempt a deeply sympathetic reading of this difficult film; and to give notes that may help structure it for you, the audience, as you watch it for the first time. If I seem explain or reduce too much, it is because this is a film that does not allow us to watch it in a state of distraction, with all due respect to Walter Benjamin’s famous words on the medium of film in “The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility.” Instead we must pay the same kind of attention to the philosophical interviews as we would when reading, in focused individual concentration. Meanwhile its visual sequences and repetitions of images demand of us a kind of memory and insight as when taking in poetry.

What kind of film is this Ister? I would call it an essay-film, a philosophy-film in the great tradition of Chris Marker, Harun Farocki, Jean-Marie Straube and Daniele Huillet. It combines elements of the documentary in its interviews and of the travelogue in its conceit: moving from the watershed of the Danube river in Romania back to its sources in Germany.

In essence the film travels backwards: as Friedrich Hölderlin writes in his poem “The Ister” (one of sources for this film) the river seems to flow in “roeckwerts.” Interestingly, the word is the same in Serbian, an odd German borrowing to describe technology made to go in reverse.

We move from the Eastern, the more foreign (although to me, for example, not foreign at all) southeastern European landscapes, pocked with the signs of recent wars, conquests, and capitulations—to pass through sites of concentration camps and technological extermination before ending in the lush green Bavaria of the Danube river’s (always-already) contested origin.

The premise for the film is to remark on remarks. In 1942, as World War still raged around him, the great German philosopher Martin Heidegger delivered a lecture course on Hölderlin’s romantic hymn “The Ister,” which was the Greco-Roman name for the Danube river. In his remarks on Hölderlin’s poem, Heidegger imagined the river as embodying the flow of history and culture from ancient Greece, hence western civilization, to modern Germany. The subtext was the implied legitimization of the National Socialists; the contemporary subtext or perhaps super-text is Heidegger’s own inexplicable terrible complicity.

In the film you will notice how painted images of Prometheus giving fire to man appear at first singly, and then are shown in the context of the entire mural—in the lecture theater of Freiburg University. We the viewers are called upon to understand, to remember, and to visually imagine, Heidegger delivering his infamous rectorate address flanked by flags of the swastika.

How does the inexplicable happen? The Australian film-makers David Barison and Daniel Ross (a political scientist and philosopher, respectively) look for the answer in a series of interviews with three contemporary (or recently contemporary) French philosophers who interpret, re-interpret, critique, or generally deal with Heidegger’s thought, intellectual legacy, and failings.

Bernard Stiegler, the first, really runs away with the film as you will see. He analyzes the birth and development of human technology, building from but also crucially modifying Heidegger for what I think a fundamentally far more hopeful view. (Daniel Ross, by the way, has gone on to translate several of Stiegler’s books into English for Stanford University Press.) As Stiegler conjures it for us: man, the animal without qualities, develops tekhne or technology in order to survive, and that technology runs away with him—the implicit original sin of a divorce between technology and nature.

Stiegler (who by the way is fascinated by the possibilities of the digital, let’s call it the “Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction”) believes the poison or pharmarkon is also the remedy. He describes history as a kind of cultural memory carved into the objects and artifacts that surround us. Fittingly the film (shot digitally and edited in Final Cut) opens near the archeological site of Istria in Romania—but juxtaposed with and filmed on the very day that Romania joined Nato.

As the filmmakers show clips of the Nato-bombed bridges of Novi Sad, the Serb-bombed city of Vukovar (a key site in the creation of Croatian nationalism, nota bene the checkered flags), and the traces of Soviet imperialism (the legacies of the second world) in the Hungarian “Stalin town,” the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy takes over, discussing the origins of politics civil war in the polis.

Nancy’s frequent collaborator, the recently deceased Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, then moves still further back in time and the imperial ambitions, historical tragedies and twentieth-century technological atrocities that the river has witnessed. Lacoue-Labarthe reminds us that genocide is not Balkan, is not Eastern and foreign but springs from the heart of civilization. Smoking heavily, he addresses Heidegger’s moral failure as the camera tours the concentration camp of Mathhausen and visually seems to become short of breath. Lacoue-Labarthe cannot forgive Heidegger: not for his actions during the Third Reich, but his silence afterwards, for his inability and refusal to deconstruct that which most demanded such analysis.

The final interview (though there are three more embedded with a local archeologist, engineer, and botanist, but of the four key structural interviews) is with the great German director Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, author of the 7-hour feature Hitler: a Film from Germany. While the sense of loss and irreversibility is perhaps the greatest at this point in the film (Syberberg says that rivers have forever lost their poetry), it also marks a telling turn from philosophy to art, or rather to a re-incorporation, a bridging in this movie that is all about bridges, broken bridges, the technology of bridges, and accepting commitments to rebuild bridges. The real bridge the film The Ister attempts to make is between poetry, in the Heideggerian conception, dichtung, and the technological, including philosophy as instrumental reason.

The flow of the Ister/Danube links east to west, ancient Greece to our traumatized present, the romantic river to the industrial passage-way of EU, or the filthy dumping ground of global trash (and as my colleague Dragan Kujundzic reminds me, of bodies). Its flow, however, goes both forward and in reverse, suggesting 1) that the past is not irrevocably lost to us, but may be mined for ideas, for poetry and memory, and radically rewritten still and 2) a kind of contingency that is crucial to the thought of these French post-Heidegerrian thinkers.

The fact that our destiny is not predetermined, either through a reductive Marxism or neoliberal pessimism, is both liberating and devastating because it implies culpability—dtremendous ethical responsibility all along the river’s banks.

Of course, one important “flow” implicitly examined in the film is the flow of Heideggerian thought into France—and then itself translated in the subtitles and subsumed into the film’s kind of global English.

Visually, The Ister is also structured “poetically.” Perhaps such terms are often thrown about too liberally, but what I mean specifically is through a kind of balladic use of repetition and refrain. The same images, the same shots repeat, but as we watch we began to see their meaning in a whole new way. The paucity and asceticism of its technological means only appear accidental.

Finally, by filming so much water, Barison and Ross draw home the connection between the liquid medium, film as the dominant medium of the twentieth century (and in its more familiar forms I would argue, of capital globalized), and of course poetry. Hölderlin’s translations from the Greek, as George Steiner argued in After Babel, made the German language foreign to itself. The Ister attempts to do something similar with the documentary film, translating the hydropoetics of Hölderlin, of Heidegger and his philosophical heirs, into film form.

As to what that hydropoetics really means? I am sure my colleague Sukhdev Sandhu will be glad to explain it to you after the film.


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