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The Ister



Dir. David Barison/Daniel Ross, 2004 , Australia , 189 mins, subtitles

Cast: Bernard Stiegler, Jean-Luc Nancy, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg

The Ister is a thought-provoking series of philosophical discussions inspired by Martin Heidegger's wartime lectures on Friedrich Holderlin's poetry (themes include man's relationship to the machine and ancient Greece's influence on western civilization). This is realised as a journey along the river Danube from the Black Sea Delta in Romania, upstream through Bulgaria to it's source in Germany's Black Forest. We are taken through the rubble of the former Yugoslavia, through a Hungary trying to restore her sense of national identity (vying with the forces of American globalization), and through a Germany that is both the ghost of an extinct Europe and the heart of an uncertain new one.

The film tries to bridge that awkward gap between ideology and art. It presents the idea that man as technical being is an essential, even spiritual, concern through argument and visual motif. The repeated image of the Danube's source at the bottom of the screen and huge telephone poles stretching off into the pine forested distance at the top of the screen, replaces the old fashioned metaphor of life's progress as a river with the image of technological advancement as the new 'way'.

Heidegger considered the essential philosophical (and human) question to be: What kind of "being" is man and how is he related to the objects he lives with? The film chooses to look at this question from the perspective of technics. How the industrial revolution in the past and the subsequent technological revolution defines humanity; the way man lives, fights, and views himself.

As the speakers reflect on things like the nature of political institutions in the face of tyranny and their foundations in Greek democracy, the occasional mythical text scrolls down the page to provide the aesthetic adhesive needed to hold together the experience.

There is an interesting discussion of Heidegger's view of technology in relation to his own Nazi sympathies. Most memorably, Heidegger's belief that industrialized agriculture was part of the same system responsible for the gas chambers (as a way of distancing man from his actions). The way technological 'progress' changed the face of war, making possible large scale deportations, the abstracted dropping of bombs, turning murder into a mere technicality. The viewer is encouraged to question the benefits of a technological civilization where technics develops so much faster than culture.

For people interested in questioning the philosophical background to the turbulent events of 20th century, The Ister is a grim, yet seamlessly filmed accompaniment.

Deborah Nichols

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