Life is a long, but hardly quiet river in "The Ister," in which a trip up the Danube gives way to an expansive journey of ideas about the evolution of Mankind and the development of Western civilization. Already a veteran of major festivals, "The Ister" deserves a shot at specialized theatrical bookings, though tube airings will likely be more plentiful.
Life is a long, but hardly quiet river in “The Ister,” in which a trip up the Danube gives way to an expansive journey of ideas about the evolution of Mankind and the development of Western civilization. Tyro helmers David Barison and Daniel Ross have sunk their teeth into a heady intellectual stew, and results are invigorating thanks to the filmmakers’ inspired linkage of images and ideas and commentaries from three of the world’s leading philosophers. Already a veteran of major festivals, “The Ister” deserves a shot at specialized theatrical bookings, though tube airings will likely be more plentiful.Pic’s title derives from the ancient Greek name for the Danube, subsequently chosen by late-18th-century German poet Fridrich Holderlin as the title for his poem about the river. In 1942, that poem became the basis of a lecture course delivered by Martin Heidegger at Germany’s Freiburg U., which in turn has been cited by Barison and Ross as the impetus for their film. However, much as Heidegger declined to interpret Holderlin’s poetry for his students, so “The Ister” is a film driven more by the notion of exploration than explanation, with Heidegger’s voice ultimately but one in the film’s sometimes harmonious, sometimes cacophonous ideological chorus. Starting at the Romanian mouth of the Danube, pic — some five years in the making — gradually winds its way along the nearly 3,000-kilometer path back to the river’s source, near Germany’s Black Forest. And at each step of the trek, Barison and Ross employ a who’s who of contemporary thinkers as tour guides. Among them is “Technics and Time” author Bernard Stiegler, who engagingly recounts the story of Prometheus, with fire giving rise to the contentious marriage of man and technology. As we journey further upriver, into the bombed-out cities of the former Yugoslavia and the skeletal concentration camp at Mauthausen, “The Ister” sees fit to remind us of some of the more troubling achievements of technical-age man. Barison and Ross log considerable face time with Jacques Derrida associates Jean-Luc Nancy (whose autobiographical “L’Intrus” served as the inspiration for Claire Denis’ recent pic of the same name) and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, who collectively help further the pic’s discussion of the relationship between technology and politics, culminating in an explicit confrontation of Heidegger’s own infamous claim that mass human exterminations like the Holocaust are but an inevitable byproduct of industrialized agriculture. In pic’s final stretch, controversial German filmmaker Hans-Jurgen Syberberg (the seven-hour “Our Hitler”) takes the reins, leading the filmmakers to the Danube’s source and beyond as he contemplates the difficulty by which art and artists attempt to represent history. Presiding over such a philosophical feast — at which it is possible to gorge oneself yet leave feeling elated — Barison and Ross rightly minimize their own presence in the film. Instead, they focus their energies on pic’s impressive visual design, which wonderfully pairs images captured along the way (in crisp, color-saturated digital video) to ideas being discussed onscreen. If it is possible for a film such as “The Ister” to have a star, it would have to be Stiegler, whose convulsive energy and tufts of mad-professor hair jutting out from his balding head lend pic a special energy whenever he’s onscreen (which is quite often). That, combined with the fact Stiegler began his career as an armed robber before turning to philosophy suggests he may be a subject worthy of his own film study somewhere down the road.