Imagine a trip up the Danube River as a metaphor for the history of Western Civilization. Do you see the progress along the shore as one of humanity, or of technology? Is there any evidence that development in the latter has advanced human thought or morality?
Directed by David Barison and Daniel Ross, The Ister is a demanding documentary largely consisting of philosophical discourse with a 3000km boat ride up from the mouth of the Danube River at the Black Sea, to its original source in Germany’s Black Forest. Along this trip we see technology and its leapfrogging over humankind’s ability to ethically keep up, from the haunting commemorations and mass memorial parades in the former Yugoslavia to an eerie and sad visit to the Mauthausen concentration camp memorial in Austria.
Our guides are philosophers Bernard Stiegler (author of Time and Technics); Jean-Luc Nancy and Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe (colleagues of Derrida who have long wrestled with the meaning of Heidegger in their work); and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, whose seven-hour 1977 Hitler: a Film From Germany is a definitive, if controversial, study of the ethical trauma of the ’30s and ’40s in Germany.
In our age, the rapid change of technology represents hundreds of years of advancement in ages prior. Just in my own life the difference is dramatic. I’m only 41, and yet my childhood, with no cable TV, no computers, no cell phones, no VCR–and even no pizza delivery!–seems as quaint as a slowly browning newsreel. For centuries, up through the onset of the Industrial Revolution, ideas may have advanced, but the physical world remained essentially static. One knew one’s place in the world, in the sense that it was fixed, notwithstanding the occasional improvement in existing models and modes: a better pen, a better roadway, a more economical gaslight, new ways to use whale oil. The Ister examines the rapid nature of technological progress and its disorienting effect on Western philosophy and ethics. Clearly, the holocaust is seen as the ultimate example of technology erupting with a grim efficiency no philosophy could comprehend. It was, according to Labarthe, a split, or gasping pause, in history: "The spirit comes up short of breath to the reality of the holocaust."
Do static technological periods allow for human advancement and more time to think? With technology advancing far more rapidly than ever, is there time to think about where we are going, what we are becoming, what it will be necessary to become? With long but lively discourses on poetry, history and time in the context of technology and death, our guides in The Ister pose many more questions than they answer.
The film’s dialogue is mostly in French and serves as a melodic and ironic vehicle for wrestling with Greek and German ideas, as Heidegger’s remarks are to Holderlin’s wrestling with Greek myth. The German poet sought to find an entry into Greek myth, as it inched slowly toward a perfection of its ideals in Germany. "The Ister," which is the ancient name for the river Danube, was his metaphor for that Romantic journey. Holderlin was a Romantic poet whose melancholy over the alienation of his time found solace in Classical history. Meanwhile, Heidegger chose to lecture on Holderlin as a framework for his commentary on poetry, ethics and technology. Heidegger’s words cannot, despite apologists on both sides, escape their ties to National Socialism, and his eventual thrall to it. That said, his ideas, in spite of our desire to dismiss them outright, forever haunt. We have never, in a sense, caught our ethical breath in the face of how mechanization has made death (en masse) mundane, while providing means–previously unheard of–for isolating ourselves from even our own isolation. To know hundreds of people on Facebook but not one neighbor is a recent example of this.
What is left after myth? Reality. Temporal, finite life, one in which, to truly live, one must accept the inevitability of death. One that builds upon the toppled myths, and yet one that also becomes too real to bear, and thus creates new myths. The history of technology is a history of constructed myths that help one ignore death. Steigler says that our reliance on the media, arbitrary designations of time and season, and technologies that we take for granted creates another sort of distance: it leads one to objectify oneself and others as separate, as commodities.
The long trail documented in The Ister.
This is a film about which a book-length study might come close to wrestling with all its content. Weighty and dizzying with ideas and visuals–and literally a meditation on the entire, broad history of Western man–The Ister does not lend itself to a short review. Indeed, links on the film’s website to a myriad of scholarly essays suggests that the film has caused ripples through intellectual and academic communities, in which Heidegger remains a lightning rod. His obvious removal of a book dedication to Husserl during the war years (as if attempting to erase mention of an obvious mentor from any discussion of his ideas), and his seemingly callous conflation of the holocaust with industrial farming as examples of technological efficiency in his Ister lectures all but assure that he will remain so.
Yet the film muddies any easy entry into his philosophy or personal beliefs. One can read Heidegger’s ideas on the holocaust vis technology the same way one can read Nietzsche’s “God is dead” comment. Both were right, if we look at the implications of the technologies and national moods of their respective times. There does, however, seem to be as much glee as horror in Nietzsche’s words, whereas with Heidegger the implications are more ambivalent.
The Ister is as much an event as a film. At roughly three hours, it is an investment of time and, in content, a challenge to even the informed viewer. The film does not shy away from intellectual and philosophical minutiae, and one would be advised to take advantage of the reading material linked at theister.com to fill in some gaps. Not for the intellectually faint of heart, The Ister is a fascinating, disturbing and powerful trip up our collective psyches and historical responsibilities.