Feb 24, 2010

In 1942, at the height of World War II, Martin Heidegger, the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century, delivered a series of lectures on The Ister, Friedrich Hölderlin's poem about the Danube River, which referred to the waterway by its ancient Greek name.

Heidegger had achieved worldwide fame in 1927 for his philosophical magnum opus, Being and Time. In 1933, Heidegger embraced the National Socialist 'revolution,' becoming rector of Freiburg University. His inaugural address culminated in "Heil Hitler!" After clashing with the Nazi bureaucracy, however, he resigned the rectorate in 1934.

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Eight years later, as the tide of the war was turning against Germany, Heidegger spent the summer semester lecturing on the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, focusing on his poem The Ister. Rather than an esoteric retreat into the realm of aesthetics, Heidegger's lectures directly addressed the political, cultural and military chaos facing Germany and the world in 1942.

THE ISTER takes up some of the most challenging paths in Heidegger's thought, as we journey from the mouth of the Danube River in Romania to its source in the Black Forest. However controversial Heidegger remains, his thought remains alive in the work of some of the most remarkable thinkers and artists working today, four of whom discuss the contemporary social relevance of Heidegger, including Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Jean-Luc Nancy, Bernard Stiegler, and filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg.

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Winding through the shattered remains of the former Yugoslavia, through a Hungary busily restoring its national mythology, and through a Germany that is both the heart of the new Europe and the ghost of the old one, the Danube itself is the question of the film. In addition to its mentally stimulating, at times even challenging, philosophical discourse, THE ISTER features stunning natural vistas along the nearly 2,000-mile length of one of Europe's major rivers, as well as ancient Greek ruins, the Mauthausen concentration camp, Yugoslavian bridges devastated by NATO bombings, and King Ludwig's Walhalla temple.

By drawing the places and times of the river into a constellation with Heidegger's thought, THE ISTER invites the viewer to participate in some of the most provocative questions facing Europe and the world today. These questions-of home and place, culture and memory, of technology and ecology, of politics and war-concern us today just as much as they did Heidegger in 1942.

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