December 31, 2009 -- “The Ister” is a film that journeys up the Danube from its mouth to it's source('s) and the history of places, people and thought along its 3,000 kilometer length. The central theme is a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin as interpreted by philosopher Martin Heidegger in his 1942 lecture course (published as Hölderlin's Hymn "The Ister"). This is not just a sightseeing trip. It is also a journey of the mind from early civilizations to modern Europe in the early 21st century.
This journey encompasses several broad subjects, including the rise and fall of several civilizations and empires. It also follows the rise and fall of particular ways of viewing human existance. Some Greek philosophers sought to separate human or spiritual values from technology. Similar splits happened later. Other philosophers insisted that technology and human existence are tied inextricably. Heidegger's view that without technology there would be no history. It is only through artifacts and such inventions as writing that there is a past. The film also explores Heidegger's concept of time as it applies to human existence. These subjects are discussed by the late Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Jean-Luc Nancy, Bernard Stiegler (all French philosophers) and lastly German film director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. Stiegler, a Frenchman with a German name, takes up a large chunk of the film's three hour running time. Biologist Tobias Maier talks about the plant life along the river. The film ends with a recording of Heidegger reading Hölderlin's poem “The Ister.”
To give you a taste of Heidegger's concept of time, as understood by Stiegler, here is a bit of that discussion, “But this future, according to Heidegger is also, and above all, a relation to the past. That is, I have no future but via the possibilities I may inherit from a past, which is itself full of possibilities. And this past may be inherited from a myriad of possibilities insofar as it is not my past. It is the past of the Greeks, it's the past of Hölderlin, it's the past of the French Revolutionaries, of the English colonies in Australia, etc., but it's not my past. It's a past I have not lived ... A past that is not lived has no meaning ...”
Steigler continues, “My death remains 'still to come' and hence a magnificent paradox. My death is the sole event I will never live. When my death arrives, I won't be there to live it. Death will therefore never happen to me. It is both what will never happen to me and the only thing which can ever happen to me. Because, say you catch a flu, or you fall in love ... then they leave. All this happens. Nothing is quite irremediable, so nothing ever happens conclusively ... except death. The trouble is that it won't really happen either. So it is nothing but a phantom. It has never been and it will never arrive. There are nothing but phantasms.”
The film travels upstream from the mouth of the Danube at the Black Sea in Romania, to the source of the river in the Black Forest of southern Germany, moving along the way through the Histria archaeological site where ancient Milesian Greek settlers once lived, to Novi Sad in Serbia, Vukovar in Croatia. Budapest, Vienna and the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria. The Walhalla temple near Regensburg (a tribute to the Greeks), the Hall of Liberation at Kelheim, the tomb of Agnes Bernauer (the German Antigone) and the Hohenzollern castle at Sigmaringen which housed the French Vichy government in 1945 are visited. There is much beauty in the landscape, architecture and artwork along the journey. This journey also covers the time from the ancient Greeks, through the Romans, through various wars, including World War II and the Bosnian War, the scars of which are still painfully evident. It also covers certain aspects of the evolution of philosophy at the same time. This film rates a B.
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