Resting wearily atop a hunched over spine, the perspicacious mind of Svetlana Geier is continually cycling. Known as the greatest translator of Russian literature, the Ukrainian born German immigrant witnessed the her father’s tortured imprisonment at the will of Stalin as a child, as well as the Nazi occupation of her home country, but as a woman nearing the end of her life, she is looking back 60 years, carefully examining the web of horrific circumstances that led her to find salvation in language. First time documentarian Vadim Jendreyko bares witness to her thorough thought processes, and the small movements that make up her deeply rooted connections to the world.
The film finds Geier in the midst of translating yet another book, with the helpful input of a pair of long collaborating friends. She gained notoriety for her German translations of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “five elephants”, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils, A Raw Youth, and The Brothers Karamazov. Occasionally, she visits classrooms to lecture about translating, but she spends most of her time at home with her books and fabric. Everything seems to stop after her son is seriously injured in a tech class accident. Instead of translating, she focuses on caring for him, but soon it is obvious her efforts are futile. The swirl of emotion leads her to revisit her homeland for the first time since she left in 1944. Though not all of them are verbally expressed, the memories that surface on her journey are moving and painful, but they are reflected upon with profound simplicity and respect.
Jendreyko’s tact matches that of Geier’s. He sits in the tranquility of her home with minimal movement, allowing for her to expose her truths as she sees fit at her own ponderous pace. When she speaks, it is with the elegance of the written words she holds so dear, but it is just as carefully thought over. It is as if she is consciously aware of the permanence of the spoken word on film, though it is clear she is unaltered by the presence of the camera. History has rendered her a hardened woman of utmost intelligence, but the literary world she has surrounded herself acts almost like a barrier to the pain that lies in her past. Jendreyko gingerly unwraps these figurative wounds, allowing for deep seeded reflection that spans generations, and expands infinitely forward as the power of language is put on display.
As one of the first releases of their new documentary arm, Spark, Cinema Guild have put together a handsome DVD package for The Woman With The Five Elephants. The doc’s naturalistic look is transferred without any visual blunders to note. It’s SD image is quite clean, portraying Geier’s prudent face and hands with crisp detail. As you might expect from a doc that focuses on a soft spoken old woman, the Dolby Digital stereo track is nothing to write home about, but it does do its job of recreating dialogue well.
Portrait – short film from Russian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa (2002)
This haunting half hour piece sees Russian farmhands staring motionlessly into the camera, pitchforks, axes, and saws in hand. They stand or sit silently among their natural work environment as dogs bark, or chickens walk by in the background. Each subject appears on screen for about 20 seconds, never to return. Occasionally, the camera will focus on a landscape, slowly panning all the way around, finding its settling point on an old barn or house. Its damn spooky. Unfortunately, it isn’t presented in its original aspect ratio, and therefore appears vertically squished with black bars on the top and bottom for widescreen televisions.
There are 24 minutes of extra footage included here, much of which is similar in nature to much of the footage used in the final film. There are extended conversations between her and her translating friend, as well as a few anecdotes regarding interesting conundrums in the differences between languages.
Carefully selected images are arranged to tell an abbreviated version of Geier’s story. It’s quick and effective, though strangely the subtitles look much differently.
Text translators often go unnoticed to the casual reader, despite their stylistic impression upon the book at hand. We can thank Vadim Jendreyko for reminding us that these people are of great importance, but more importantly, for introducing us to Svetlana Geier, a woman who’s life story is a fascinating journey of heartache, repression, and freedom by way of duel lexicons. Jendreyko’s film is a magnetic triumph of history and language through the personal story of a reflective old linguist. Fare warning though – at the finish of the film you may have a strange desire to iron your shirts and read Crime and Punishment.