The 2004 documentary The Ister is released on DVD this week.
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.
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.”