David Barison and Daniel Ross, The Ister, 2004, stills from a color video, 189 minutes. Right: Bernard Stiegler.


RIVERS HAVE no poetic power anymore, German filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg tells us in David Barison and Daniel Ross’s 2004 documentary The Ister (now available on DVD). They have lost their mythic resonance and become part of the “machine” of “daily life.” These days, Syberberg asserts, nobody would create a major work of art about a river, the way Richard Wagner or Friedrich Hölderlin did. Syberberg’s musings appear at the very conclusion of Barison and Ross’s three-hour philosophical voyage. The film traces the Danube’s full course, from the Black Sea all the way to its source in southern Germany. Part rhapsodic journey replete with moments of great beauty, part tedious educational program rife with digressions on politics and history, it is not the great work of art that would prove Syberberg wrong. But it is certainly an original undertaking: a cinematic collage that turns on Hölderlin’s epic “river hymn,” The Ister (from “Istros,” the ancient Greek term for the Danube), and, more pointedly, on Martin Heidegger’s famous reading of it.

In Heideggerian thought, great poetry does not merely locate or interpret truth—it produces truth, bringing new verities into the world. “A properly unique beginning thus lies in whatever is said poetically,” said Heidegger in a series of lectures on Hölderlin delivered at Freiburg University in 1942. For Heidegger, the beginning that Hölderlin’s poetry points toward is also an end—the end of Western “metaphysics” and its progressive forgetfulness of Being, initiated by Plato and reaching its completion in technological modernity. What Hölderlin offers, then, is a glimpse of a world at once ancient and yet to come, in which Being as an unmediated process of “presencing” may yet be attained. This is a world far from the Freiburg of 1942, or so it would seem to us—but perhaps not to Heidegger, who joined the National Socialist party in 1933 (and became rector of the university the same year).

In addition to Syberberg, three leading French philosophers—Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Bernard Stiegler, all of whom have studied Heidegger’s philosophy and confronted his politics—help Barison and Ross navigate their serpentine geographical and conceptual course. Excerpts from interviews with these four men are interspersed with shots of riverscapes—some sublime and bucolic, some postindustrial and polluted—and points of interest along the route: residents of Vokovar, Croatia, marching in remembrance of the Serb’s 1991 attack on their city; May Day celebrations in Hungary; Walhalla, King Ludwig I’s monument to Germanic greatness; the empty, debris-strewn lecture hall at Freiburg. Intertitles proffer quotes from Heidegger and Hölderlin and short histories of the various locales.

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David Barison and Daniel Ross, The Ister, 2004. (Excerpt)

Stiegler, Nancy, and Lacoue-Labarthe discourse on matters political, metaphysical, mythological, poetic, technological, and ecological, intermittently returning to Heidegger and the intractable fact of his Nazi affiliation. In one sequence in the Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz, Lacoue-Labarthe quotes the most scandalous of Heidegger’s postwar remarks: “Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.”

“I don’t want to stupidly accuse Heidegger of having been a Nazi,” Lacoue-Labarthe says, as if that would be too vulgar—an odd statement, since Heidegger was a Nazi. We know that for a fact, though we have yet to answer the great question: How could such a major philosophical mind be attracted to this kind of nationalist ideology? The film does not purport to solve the conundrum, but it does raise the interesting hypothesis that Heidegger’s delusions had to do with an understanding of the German nation and its language that was, in fact, metaphysical. Heideggerian thinking has its own geography, as does the poetic universe of Hölderlin, and these territories overlap: As Lacoue-Labarthe points out, the history of the West for both of them was primarily a Greek-German affair. In such an imaginary universe, a river springing up in the Black Forest is not just a waterway but a mysterious metaphysical power: “What that one does, that river / No one knows.”

Perhaps this accounts for the fact that it is not until we reach the Black Forest—real Heidegger country—and Syberberg appears, dressed in white like a latter-day Kurtz, that things get truly exciting. The creator of the magnum opus Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977) dilates on the “new Germany,” which he calls a “weak and friendly” place. Something has been lost, he suggests: The glory of Germany, the most spiritual of nations, is gone; gone is Hölderlin, gone is Heidegger. If you live in this weak, friendly nation, as I do, you’re especially susceptible to artists like Syberberg—artists who open the door to a world we thought no longer existed, a world of myths and heroic poetry. Syberberg’s art has always tapped into these archaic energies, although on the surface it critiques the irrationalism such energies produce when unleashed. His dangerously attractive soliloquy seems a necessary finale, reminding us that The Ister’s true subject is not the physical river but the metaphysical geography that has been evoked by poets and thinkers to devastating and barbaric effect. Although Syberberg is fully aware of this, he can’t help playing with fire. He is a mild and sophisticated man, someone I would love to get to know. Behind him, the forest whispers: “The horror, the horror.”

Daniel Birnbaum

This article originally ran in the Summer 2005 issue of Artforum. The Ister is now available on DVD from Icarus Films. For more details, click here.