A first candidate for my 2006 Ten-best films list

There are many reasons a film doesn’t get distributed in the United States. The mere fact that it isn’t in English and has subtitles already puts it at a disadvantage. An unconventional approach to narrative, an unusually long running time, being a documentary – these all are frequently counted as demerits when the distributors are looking for a film that will fill seats. It would not be hard to assemble a long list of important films that have had little or no theatrical exposure here. Indeed, the editors of Film Comment do something like that every year at the Walter Reade Theater, and their annual Film Comment Selects series is usually a good showcase of movies that either never or only barely make it onto a larger American stage. This year's program, which I will talk about in a few days, features a tribute to Raul Ruiz, the Chilean expat who is a veritable poster child for unreleased films.

However, right now I want to draw your attention to a film opening Friday, Feb. 10, at Anthology Film Archives (see link to the right), that I first saw in that same series last year.

The Ister, directed by David Barison and Daniel Ross, is an excellent example of a film that would probably slip through the cracks without such a forum. It is mostly in French, three hours long and about philosophy. The filmmakers, Australian grad students in philosophy, set out on a journey up the Danube from its delta to its source, nearly 2900 kilometers through Central Europe, a trip through the hellish heart of the 20th Century.

What they have in mind, then, is not a travelogue. Rather, they use the river as the string holding together an incredibly intricate and complex structure, with Martin Heidegger’s lecture on Friedrich Holderlin’s poem “The Ister” (the ancient Roman name of the Danube) as the jumping-off point for a series of dialogues with French philosophers Bernard Stiegler, Jean-Luc Nancy and Philip Lacoue-Labarthe and German filmmaker Hans-Jurgen Syberberg. The result is nothing less than a dissection of nightmarish role of technology in human culture, culminating in the Shoah, and Heidegger’s eager acceptance of the Nazi rise to power.

As unpromising as the premise may sound, “The Ister” is seldom less than fascinating, not only because the filmmakers chose their interview subjects wisely and the footage of the great river in its various states is quite handsome. More important, the film is cunningly structured in both small and large segments. There is frequent dry humor in the juxtaposition of image and soundtrack, as in the counterpart of Stiegler’s discussion of the innate characteristics of the gazelle with a shot of an enormous garden snail. But the larger structure of the film is an intricate interweaving of shots from the whole of the journey, repeated in a variety of contexts, their significance being altered by their placement within the flow of images.

The structural sophistication of the filmmakers is nowhere more apparent than in the introduction of the subject of the Holocaust and Heidegger’s obstinate refusal to face the reality of Naziism even after the war. In the first half of the film, Stiegler speaks on length about his concept of technics (technology) as the extension of man’s self and the creation of the ability of a culture to remember its past; then Nancy talks about the historical development of democracy and the Greek idea of the polis. Like a skilled angler, Barison and Ross have baited their hook, and it strikes home at the end of the segment when a title reminds us that Heidegger’s lecture on “The Ister” was given in 1942 and that the polis in Germany that the great Grecophile was addressing were Nazis. Immediately following the intermission, the second half of the film opens with a clip from Syberberg’s Hitler: A Film From Germany in which we hear Himmler’s infamous 1942 speech telling the SS what their new task would be, the murder of Europe’s Jewish population. The formal ingenuity and audacity with which Barison and Ross achieve this coup de cinema is breathtaking, and the discussion that follows, in which Lacoue-Labarthe considers and dismisses defenses of Heidegger’s later, callous mention of the Holocaust in connection with the Berlin Airlift, would almost be superfluous, were it not so superbly argued.

I knew all along that a prolonged theatrical run of The Ister was a longshot; a week at Anthology is certainly better than nothing. But it is a shame, because the film is much too densely worked-out visually and too loaded with complicated ideas to be absorbed in a single viewing, yet it is rewarding enough that I can’t wait to see it again. Happily, First Run Features has picked it up for domestic DVD distribution and, given that it was shot on DV (and quite handsomely, too), it shouldn't lose much on disk. (And I can't wait to see what the special features are!).

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