Against the Stream: Remarks on the Film “The Ister”

The film The Ister (2004) by David Barison and Daniel Ross defines itself as a “remark” on Martin Heidegger’s lectures on Friedrich Hölderlin’s poem Der Ister (1942). What is the meaning of this remark? What is “a remark”? And how can a documentary film provide a remark on a philosophical text that defines itself as beyond philosophy? What then, is a remark on Heidegger? According to Heidegger’s own understanding, the remark is a supplement. The remark accompanies the original text, it goes along with it. It is a way of writing that calls for moments of attention(Heidegger, Hölderlin’s The Ister, 2). The remark is not an “interpretation” of the text; it does not represent its content and does not say what is already presented in the text itself. The remark is rather a reflection that is written as a dialogue within the hidden layers of the text. The remark listens to the foreign voice of the text and gives it a name.

Heidegger’s own remarks on Hölderlin’s poem Der Ister are of this nature. This is how Heidegger speaks with Hölderlin.(Heidegger himself writes on the meaning of his reading of Hölderlin’s poem as a moment of dialogue between Denken und Dichtung (thought and poetry). Compare also with Walter Biemel’s article on Heidegger and Hölderlin (Biemel, 105-122).) It is the dialogue between Dichtung und Denken, “poetry and thought,” that is condensed in the structure of his remarks. Heidegger listens to the hidden, foreign voice in Hölderlin’s poetry and transforms it into a concept. And what is this foreign voice in Hölderlin? Heidegger hears in Hölderlin’s poem the legacy of ancient Greek, the language of Sophocles, the discourse of tragedy; he listens to the speeches of Antigone – the discourse of Unheimlichkeit, “the Uncanny.”(Heidegger translates the Greek word DEINON from the choral ode of Antigone as das Unhemiliche, “the Uncanny”. He discusses at length the considerations of this translation as if it were a revelation of the hidden meaning of this term in Greek (Heidegger, Hölderlin’s “The Ister”, 63-64) and distinguishes the ontological definition of the Uncanny from the “psychological” i.e. from the concept of the Unconscious (91-92). One can understand Heidegger’s remark as a critique of Sigmund Freud’s discourse on the Uncanny, which is not only a psychological but also – according to few anti-Semitic interpretations – a “Jewish” one. On Freud’s definition of the Uncanny see: Sigmund Freud “Das Unheimliche”.)

The film follows this principle. It consists of a remark on Heidegger’s reading of poetry and a critique of technology. That is to say, the film listens to the hidden, foreign, silent discourse in Heidegger’s text and gives it a name and a voice. And what is this foreign and silent voice in Heidegger? The film listens to the voice of history; it listens to the “Jews.”

Still from `The Ister`. Still from `The Ister`.

The film thus tells about a figure of denial in Heidegger’s philosophy and gives it a name. In one of the interviews in the film, Bernard Stiegler tells about the philosopher Edmund Husserl, Heidegger’s teacher, and a German-Jew. Heidegger dedicated the first edition of his book Sein und Zeit (1927) to Husserl. Later, in 1941, he removed the dedication and restored it only after the war. The dedication to Husserl and its removal marks a split in Heidegger’s intellectual biography, a rupture in his phenomenological view of being. The “Jew” is the name of the split and of the absence in Heidegger’s project(Lyotard, Heidegger and the “Jews”). The film examines the meaning of this absence in Heidegger’s lectures on Hölderlin. These lectures, which deal with the meaning of Unheimlichkeit, “the Uncanny,” and explore the essence of being as the tension between foreignness and belonging, forgetfulness and recall, were given in 1942, the year of the “Final Solution.” The Ister remembers the historical depth of this date.

The Inversion

The film goes along with Heidegger’s text; it travels against the stream. To go against the stream – this is nature of the Ister. In his poem Hölderlin writes on the essence of this river:

Der scheint aber fast
Rückwärts zu gehen und
Ich mein, er müsse kommen
Von Osten.
Vieles wäre
Zu sagen davon
(Hölderlin, Der Ister, 197.)

He appears, however, almost
To go backwards and
I presume he must come
From the East.
There would be
Much to tell of this

Heidegger argues that the vision of the Danube river from Holderlin’s poem that goes backwards to its sources, and flows from East to West is not merely an illusion(36-37.).

Hölderlin writes on the essence of the stream and reveals its ambivalent structure of space and time. It is the vision of being itself, the tension between home and wandering, origin and destiny, belonging and foreignness that find an appropriate name in Hölderlin’s poem. However, Hölderlin’s poem does not merely describe the nature of the Danube; it rather “creates” it by revealing its hidden essence. The poetry gives things their real, actual, “sacred” names, and only through these poetic names do the things become what they “really” are.(Compare with Heidegger lecture on Hölderlin’s Poem (Heidegger, “Das Gedicht” 182-192).) This is the ontological meaning of Dichtung, “poetry”:

Voll Verdienst, doch dichterisch wohnt/Der Mensch auf dieser Erde(Hölderlin, In lieblicher Bläue, 481.)

Full of merit, yet poetically/Humans dwell upon this earth

Still from `The Ister`.The dwelling of man on this earth is essentially poetical. Yet, the poetic existence of man implies neither an idealist view of life, nor a utopian perspective of being. The poem, like the river, is the real movement in being. Like the river, the poem itself, the event of language, is the process of “becoming homely”(Heidegger 33-45.). The poem, like the river, is the design, the plan, the name of being. However, the poetics of the river are that of inversion. The river flows on a path of return, in search of its origin. The film follows this vision: it moves against the stream and begins its travel at the end, at the river’s delta in Romania. Apparently the film explores Heidegger’s own view on the essence of the river. It indeed moves backwards, on a path of return, against the regular, “technical” view of time and space. The film travels to Germany. On its way it shows the other side, the backside of progress; it shows the dirt, the industrial waste, the urban trash; it focuses on empty plastic bottles that float on the river. The shore of this “holy” river, the home of man, Heimat, is a dump. In this realm, in this backyard of civilization, on the boundaries of European history, human beings have been condemned. The film marks the body of homo faber: engineers, workers, immigrants and other refugees of the technical age who are thrust into cycles of work and wandering. They gather on the shore of the river or travel on boats. The “poetics” of their journey is that of globalization. They travel on a major route of the European Union. However, they travel as foreigners.

Still from `The Ister`. The Ister thus reveals an inverted, critical view of the process of civilization. It documents the backside of the technical era. Its inverted view, however, is double-edged. It indeed follows the tendency of Heidegger’s text: the film travels back, against the stream. It travels “poetically.” But it also travels against this legacy of German poetry as it is marked by Heidegger. The film reveals the earthly, unclean, noisy view of being. It speaks about Germany’s war crimes that were repressed in Heidegger’s discourse. The meaning of inversion in this film is that of memory. It recalls the forgotten side of technology: the human work, the industrial waste, the poverty. It does not, however, forget history, the wars and their crimes that remained unspoken in Heidegger’s poetic remarks. The film thus conducts a dialogue with a layer of historical consciousness that is hidden in Heidegger’s lectures.(Indeed, Heidegger’s own text can be read as a dedication to Norbert von Hellingrath, a German poet and the first editor of the critical edition of Hölderlin’s work, who discovered the manuscript of the poem The Ister and gave it its title. Hellingrarth was killed in the first World War. Heidegger mentions Hellingrath’s project and his death in the opening of the lectures on the Ister. The remark on Hellingrath’s death in Verdun is a moment of historical consciousness in Heidegger’s lecture that remains, however, undeveloped. Heidegger dedicated his lecture on Hölderlin und das Wesen der Dichtung, “Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry”, that was given in 1936 to Hellingrath.)

The Machine

The “spirit of the machine,” Heidegger writes, is metaphysics itself. Modern technology is the ultimate, absolute realization of metaphysical thought. It is the grammar of utility and functionality, the logic of calculation, the notion of representation and communication that stands at the heart of modern technology. Of course, film and photography belong to this category as well. Film is one of the modernist media of representation. It is a “machine” of images and sounds that ostensibly stands in deep contradiction to Heidegger’s critical view of art; because art, like philosophy itself, is a medium of representation. Art deals with the replacements of the transcendental truth and therefore creates symbols, allegories or “illusions” of being(16-20.). This contradiction is indeed profound. However, it seems that The Ister reflects the question of representation both in its content and form. The essence of representation, the meaning of evidence and the conditions of images are questioned and systematically explored in this project. The Ister is a self-critical project and its methods should be considered. It begins, first, with the act of inversion, the travel back from the river mouth to its sources, the journey that undermines the illusion of continuation in time and space and challenges the chronological aspects of representation. Second, there is the structure of repetition. The duplication of images and sounds and the reappearance of the same shots in different contexts and locations during the film undermines the concept of documentation and questions the notion of evidence. A third methodological aspect of the film can be defined as the “technique of montage.” The use of rapid cuts, fractured pictures and artificial combinations of philosophical interviews with images of everyday life destabilizes the content of the spoken word and creates an ironic effect of mimesis. It is indeed the mimesis of estrangement, as Theodor Adorno defines the essence of modernism(Ästhetische Theorie, 39.), or an “effect of alienation,” if one is permitted to use Bertolt Brecht’s dramaturgical concept, that defines the nature of this film. The Ister is a medium of dissonances. This aspect can also be recognized in its fourth feature, namely the quotation of mechanical sounds, industrial noises, resonances of trains and ships that disturb the coherence of representation and produce dissonances or “shocks” in cognition.

Still from `The Ister`. The tension between words, sounds, and images is one of the technical achievements of The Ister. The film translates sounds into the realm of the image. It produces “noisy,” disharmonic images and creates inverted, fractured signs. This method opens a critical perspective on the possibilities of the sign and the condition of representation. The implication of this “machine” gains its full and yet ambivalent meaning during the discussion on Heidegger’s silence and the destruction of European Jewry. It shows that the discourse on Mauthausen, the concentration camp, demands a permanent interruption in the visual process. In these scenes, the sign is intensified and brought to its limits. The sign here turns into an impulse. It is reshaped as a mechanical, empty, noisy signal, an empty signifier that yet serves as a name – as the recall of catastrophe.

The “machine” of The Ister is a medium for a critique of technology, progress, and representation. It is technology itself: technical devices, industrial surroundings, and mechanical echoes, which are used to deconstruct the functional meaning of the machine and to explore its Geist, “the spirit.” The Ister shows the symptoms of the technical age and reveals its great neurosis – the Wiederholungszwang, “the repetition compulsion.” However, the repetition is also its poetics of memory: to repeat means to remember.

The Foreign Word

In his lectures on Hölderlin, Heidegger discusses the meaning of language as a foreign word. The essence of the German language, its philosophical depth, its horizons as a language of Denken, “thought,” and its possibilities as a language that is released from the burden of metaphysics and technical views of being, lies essentially in the dialogue with ancient Greek. The real, hidden discourse in Hölderlin’s poem is that of a foreignlanguage – the Greek of Sophocles. A reading of Hölderlin, according to Heidegger, is an act of translation, a permanent dialogue between German and Greek. The dialogue with Greek is indeed a process of estrangement. However, through this process and through its moments of foreignness, the German language reveals its own essence. The meeting with Greek is a moment of Unheimlichkeit, “the Uncanny,” a dangerous encounter that is demanded on the path of Heimischwerden, “becoming homely.” Heidegger writes about the “historical” meaning of this dialogue: “A historical people is only from the dialogue between its own language and foreign languages”(65.). The historical process of “becoming homely” thus requires the horizon of a foreign language. Only through the dialogue with Greek and its tragedies can the German people experience its own historical identity and its destiny in being. And this is the gift of Hölderlin, who translated Greek thought into German words. Hölderlin’s poem gives the German its lost origin, its source. Here lies the meaning of the Ister as a poetic step – back to the origin.

Greek is the foreign figure, a hidden, homeless word – the Uncanny of the German. Greek culture, its language and poetry, produce, according to Heidegger, the real challenge to German culture. With this insight, he did not stand alone. Since the age of Enlightenment, from Lessing, Goethe and Schiller to Romanticism and Friedrich Nietzsche, the Greek tragedy stands as model of art and culture and as a source for speculation on the revival of the “German spirit.” Heidegger, who rejected all former interpretations of the Greek tragedy as “metaphysics,” suggests a radical, ontological reading of the tragedy as the actual discourse of being.(On Heidegger’s understanding of tragedy see, for instance, Robert S. Gall, 177-194.) However, according to his view, there are different foreign languages that invade German territory. These languages do not challenge and enrich the German, but rather threaten to destroy its original features. These are English and American – the languages of the technical age, languages of communication and calculation that declare war on German culture(66.). The “Anglo-American” language bears the forgetfulness of being, the lack of origin and historical identity. In other writings, Heidegger extended his argument on the metaphysical nature of modern languages and applied it to the world of all Romance languages: the heritages of Latin.

The film The Ister speaks mostly French and English. It conducts all its philosophical interviews in French, the mother tongue of Stiegler, Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe. The discourse on Heidegger is in French and one should recognize the principle meaning of these “foreign” languages in the discussion on Heidegger. French is the language and the philosophical culture in which Heidegger’s legacy was received, reread, celebrated and criticized after the Second World War. The foreign discourse on Heidegger is indeed an act of inversion that explores the double meaning of his project as a process of political denial. The poetics of the foreign word are those of opposition. Theodor Adorno wrote on this aspect of the foreign words: the essence of words from Latin and French that function as dissonances in German and recall the forgotten tradition of humanism.(Compare: Adorno, “Wörter aus der Fremde,” 216-232.) French injures the prominence of German as a mother tongue, and reveals the other, rejected languages in Heidegger’s discourse. And it is not only French, the mother tongue of Bernard Stiegler, the language of the other civilization,(The rivalry with French civilization (Zivilisation) was, already in the age of Enlightenment, a source for cultural and national discourse in Germany. This discourse of Kultur (culture) gained its political meaning after the wars against Napoleon (Norbert Elias 90-123).) but rather his use of the English language during the interviews as a foreign word that opens an inverted, ironical view on Heidegger’s discourse. Stiegler’s English words, his translations, its foreign laughter, are gestures of revolt at the heart of this film on Heidegger’s language and silence.

The Jew

Heidegger did not create an open discourse on Auschwitz. He never wrote or spoke directly about Germany’s crimes against humanity. Names like Auschwitz or Mauthausen are missing from the index of his ontological project. The Jews, seen as historical and symbolic subjects, are the forgotten, denied bodies of his philosophy. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe listens again to this silence, and he recognizes a moment of ontological oblivion in Heidegger’s writings. The film follows his thoughts and elaborates the nature of this scandal in the history of philosophy – Heidegger’s silence on the destruction of European Jewry. The Ister, however, sees the paradox, namely that no image, no word, or interview can capture the catastrophe of the Jews, but rather distorted sounds, flashes, a real silence and a poem. The Jew is a silent figure. And this silence, the silence of a victim, is enfolded in Heidegger’s own silence and denial. This tension is essentially revealed in the case of Paul Celan.(I am referring here to the allegorical meaning of Martin Heidegger’s silence and to the ambivalent relationship between his philosophy and Celan’s lyric. Compare: Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Heidegger, Art and Politics. For further reading: James K. Lyon, Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger.)

The Ister is a film on Heidegger’s language and silence. It is thus a film about the Jews – a film about the victims, the wounded, silent bodies of Europe. It is a film on the historical nature of the “Ister,” a film on the Danube.

Works Cited

Adorno, W. Theodor, “Wörter aus der Fremde,” Noten zur Literatur, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1998, 216-232.

Adorno, W. Theodor, Ästhetische Theorie, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1998, 39.

Biemel, Walter, “Die Bedeutung der Stromhymne Hölderlins für Heidegger”, Peter Trawny (Ed.), “Voll Verdienst, doch dichterisch wohnt der Mensch auf dieser Erde”: Heidegger und Hölderlin, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2000.

Elias, Norbert, Über den Prozeß der Zivilisation. Soziogentische und psychogenetische Untersuchungen, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. 1997. ???????????? ??????????????? ??? ????? ????????

Freud, Sigmund. “Das Unheimliche“, in: Studienausgabe, Band IV: Psychologische Schriften, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2000.

Gall, S. Robert, “Interrupting Speculation: The Thinking of Heidegger and the Greek Tragedy”, Continental Philosophy Review (36), 2003, 177-194.

Heidegger, Martin, Hölderlin’s Hymn “The Ister”, Trans. William McNeil and Juila Davids, Bloomington: Indiane University Press, 1966 [The German original: Gesamtausgabe, Band 53: Hölderlins Hymne “Der Ister”, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1993].

Heidegger, Martin, “Das Gedicht”, Erläuterungen zu Hölderlins Dichtung, Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1981, 182-192.

Hölderlin, Friedrich, Werke, Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1969.

Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe, Heidegger, Art and Politics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

Lyon, James K., Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger. An Unresolved Conversation, 1951–1970, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Lyotard, Jean-François, Heidegger und “die Juden”, Wien: Passagen, 1988.

Related texts:

The Danube: Hölderlin, Heidegger, ‘the jews,’ and the Destiny of Europe by Dragan Kujundzic

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