Sunday, January 10, 2010

THE ISTER, via Barison & Ross, combines Philosophy, History, Holocaust & Travel

Unusual does not begin to describe THE ISTER, a one-
of-a-kind, model mash-up of philoso-
phy, history, travel visuals and Holo-
caust hauntings from filmmakers David Barison and Daniel Ross. Drawing from a 1942 lecture series given by German philosopher Martin Heidegger on a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin called The Ister (the ancient Greek name for the Danube river), the filmmakers talk to several living philosophers about Heidegger and his theories, while showing us some simply splendid scenery and visuals -- much of these along or near the Danube -- that play into the conversation with beauty, irony and perspicacity. From the very first, their film should involve the intelligent viewer visually and intellectually.

At a three-hour-and-ten-minute running-time, however, holding fast that viewer may be a more difficult matter. TrustMovies chose to break up his viewing into segments between 30 and 60 minutes each, which helped. In fact, the filmmakers themselves have provided their own sections (four of them, I believe) that divide the piece nicely, and they even include their own short intermission slightly more than halfway along.

The major talking heads here, complete with bodies, which they often use in interesting fashion (if you are into body language) include philosophers Bernard Stiegler (shown above), Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue Labarthe and filmmaker (Hitler: A Film from Germany ) Hans Jürgen Syberberg (shown below). Each proves as interesting and different as the next and what they have to say helps form a kind of mosaic around the subjects of technology and its uses; memory and history; politics, war and genocide; hypocrisy and humanity; early forms of globalization;
and much, much more.

The organization of the film is odd. The only constant seems to be the distance from the source of the Danube river, which we approach and then even go beyond. But the conversations of the philosophers and filmmaker seem somewhat scattered in their connectivity -- yet still cogent and worth hearing. If I found Herr Syberberg less interesting than the philosophers, his film on Hitler (bits of which are shown here) certainly makes up for that and is in itself quite philosophical.

Along the way we come upon upon everything from archeology and a duck (above) that pops up at the beginning and ending of the film (even its little waddle seems to entice us to thought) to the Mauthausen concentration camp and Heidegger's idea that connects the production of agriculture to gas chamber corpses to blockades and famine to hydrogen bombs.  One of the film's true moments of high drama (well, high drama for this kind of film) comes as one of our philosophers wrestles mightily with the idea of accusing Heidegger of being a Nazi.  (Well, he was. But he was more than that, right?) During the sort-of-tour of Mauthausen, the camera keeps going to white, as though actually seeing the place might be too much for us. (Other than these arty moments, the visuals are generally direct and appropriate.)

Among the many wonderful theories put forth is the idea that mythology disappeared around the same time as did human sacrifice (between the 12th and 8th centuries BC), roughly the same time-frame in which the alphabet appears and real commerce begins.  Writing and commerce, we see, are linked;  with these new horizons suddenly visible, who needs so many gods and sacrifices?  The documentary is full to overflowing with ideas like this.

Watching a film like The Ister takes you away from current events that might make you angry or depressed (say, Obama's seeming inability or concern with righting and protecting our banking/
financial system) and into history and the very long view. While this may not put food upon the table, it does provide some wonderful for thought. Hugely satisfying, Barison, Ross and their interviewees offer up a unique experience and a kind of respite from the cares of the moment -- while bringing us up against age-old concerns that simply do not go away.

The Ister is available on DVD via Icarus Films, for sale there, as well as elsewhere, and for rent via Netflix.

No comments: