I once spoke with an educator who found it very odd that I managed to get an
undergraduate degree without actually taking an official course in philosophy.
Because I majored in both history and English, though, I was exposed to notable
thinkers, ranging from Lao Tze and Confucius to John Locke and Karl Marx to Plato
and Aristotle. Admittedly, I was unfamiliar with the German writers such as Kant,
Wittgenstein, Husserl and Heidegger. The two latter names are figures discussed in
the nonfiction film
THE ISTER, which after playing the film festival circuit received a
theatrical release.

 THE ISTER marks the directorial debut of two Australians, David Barison and
Daniel Ross, who shared a “passion for Heidegger’s thought” and a joint idea of
addressing philosophical questions through the medium of motion pictures. Their
stated goal was to allow the viewer the means to experience the way the
philosopher’s thought remains contemporaneous. As such, the pair engaged three
articulate French thinkers, Bernard Steigler, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Philippe
Lacoue-Labarth as well as German filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg to expound
on specific themes in Heidegger’s work.

 The film takes its name from one of several poems (or hymns) by the German
Romantic Friedrich Hölderlin which addressed the Greek’s philosophical legacy.
It perhaps comes as no surprise that the film grew out of Ross' doctoral
dissertation. By attempting to marry philosophy and its complex ideas with the
cinema, they have fashioned an extremely dense and thought-provoking movie.
At over just over three hours, though, it is a demanding one, requiring a viewer's
full attention.
THE ISTER is an intellectual exercise that marries the philosopher
with the habitat. By traveling up the Danube River to its disputed source(s), the film
offers an intellectual challenge.

 THE ISTER roughly is divided into four main parts, with a prologue and epilogue.
The film opens with Steigler expounding on the creation of technology in Greek
myth by recounting the tale of how Prometheus bestowed fire to his brother
Epimetheus. The action then shifts to the mouth of the Danube near Vukovar and
intercuts scenes of the river with Steigler speaking about theories of technology
and time. Steigler is himself an intriguing figure, having turned to philosophical
studies while in prison for armed robbery.

 Through Steigler, the filmmakers are able to introduce Heidegger's political
beliefs and his support of the Nazi Party in the 1930s. In this second section, which
encompasses a trip across Hungary, Ross and Barison interview Jean-Luc Nancy
who goes into more detail about the philosopher's ideals.

 By the time the third section begins, with Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, the
themes of postwar technology, including the horrors of the Holocaust, the threat
of nuclear weapons, and the manner in which food is produced and shipped,
the travelogue has passed the wreckage left by recent conflicts in the former
Yugoslavia and lands at the concentration camp at Mauthausen.

 In the final section, Steigler returns to discourse on memory while an interview
with Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, who directed a film about Hitler, argues that neither
the filmmakers' thesis may be flawed, since "rivers don't have that poetic power
anymore." It's a startling moment, and perhaps to the movie makers credit that
they retained it for the film.

 The epilogue consists of Heidegger reciting Hölderlin's poems over pastoral
images culled from the film.

 I daresay that one often will not find a film like
THE ISTER, which is clearly a
labor of love for the two Australian directors. They have attempted (and mostly
succeeded) in crafting a film that raises numerous issues and can and should
provoke discussions. It is obviously for a rarefied audience, but those who do make
the commitment to see
THE ISTER will undoubtedly find themselves exposed
to some transformative ideas.


                       Rating:                         B
                       Running time:             189 mins.
The Ister
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.