Saturday, March 11, 2006

Movie / The Ister [aka The Danube]

Needless to say, when I heard there was a 3-hour movie (with an intermission) combining a travelogue of the Danube with an in-depth discussion of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, who joined the Nazi Party, including a tour of a Nazi death camp (Mauthausen), I dropped everything and drove 30 miles out to San Rafael to see it on opening night. There I joined 40+ other people in a theater that could have held 60, and ~25 of us were still there at the end.

How about this movie concept? Heidegger, author of "Being and Time" and protege of Husserl (a Jew), became head of Freiburg University under the Nazis, and later gave an infamous talk equating the Holocaust with mechanized farming. He had written an essay about Hoelderlin's poetry (also beloved by Wagner), and there is an extant recording of him reading Hoelderlin's poem "The Ister." The Danube (anciently known as the Ister) is ~2,400 km long, from its origin in the Black Forest to its mouth at the Black Sea, most of which is a commercial waterway, with dams and locks, suitable for tour boats. Book yourself on a friend's boat leaving the mouth, shoot a lot of footage all the way up, get out and tour various cities, including those recently bombed during the NATO campaign against Serbia, and intercut this with a long series of interviews with philosophers, archaeologists, architects, an ecologist, a film maker, and so on.

It somewhat resembles the journey in "Heart of Darkness" up the Congo into darkest Africa, except it is to the darkest moments of European history. Periodically, as if we are on a long plane flight, along with the extensive subtitling, long written quotes, section headers, place names, etc. we see our "mileage remaining" -- "1,975 km to Source." At the end we go up some alpine tributary (-60 km) above the source.

The bulk of the film is long talking-head interviews with philosophers (mostly in French) about Heidegger and his ideas. Here in America we have little or no memory of a time before the Industrial Revolution, and we were already in a state of dynamic change (New World-ization) when it hit, whereas in Europe they rightly saw it as a big inflection point, in which a world that seemingly never changed was transformed to one in perpetual change.

As with any credible philosophy there is a long series of seemingly deep, thought provoking observations, in which some pattern is alleged, often as part of a larger one, and the viewer (or reader, of text on a black screen) can acknowledge, "yes, that looks deep." Yet, after all these years (I ask), how much (positive) influence has it really had? Techne, the power of technology and economics, which the ancient Greeks dismissed as unrelated to truth or science, is in the saddle now and drives everything else, the Internet being only the most dramatic example so far.

The film, produced by two Australians, is a low-budget affair that misses many opportunities. The river footage has a few too many industrial sites (techne). The sound track quotes Bruckner here and there, but could have been far more powerful, with brooding symphonic passages and poignant folk melodies. And the points about techne and the Holocaust, while valid and deep, could have packed a lot more dramatic punch. A movie is supposed to "show rather than tell," but "The Ister" is a nice illustrated lecture.

Another attendee told me he was a poet. Of those remaining at the end, 90% also sat through the credits in their entirety! Perhaps that says something about the mindest needed for philosophy or poetry, namely the ability to hold one's attention upon something without effort.


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