During the middle of the twentieth century, philosophers of language were pondering the limits of translation, with many arguing meaning doesn't travel well between languages and cultures. As a leading translator of Russian literature into German, Svetlana Geier spent her life tackling the "problem of translation." As evidenced by Vadim Jendreyko's portrait, she succeeded, although essential matters are left out of this account. While consistently absorbing, The Woman with the 5 Elephants is circumspect about certain historical and moral questions raised by Geier's story. Semioticians, literary scholars and gerontologists will find the documentary to be a gold mine; others will find it frustratingly indeterminate and abstract. Receipts will reflect its rarefied nature.
Jendreyko spent a number of years filming and interviewing Geier (née Ivanova) in her Freiburg, Germany home and the result is remarkably self-contained. Fortunately, the Ukrainian-born octogenarian has a charismatic personality that amply fills out the screen. Much of the time we watch her at work, translating pillars of Russian literature (the title's five elephants are Dostoyevsky's great novels) in painstaking fashion aided by a secretary and a colleague with whom she pores over manuscripts, slowly critiquing and amending her renditions. Or else she's seen puttering around her house, sipping tea, cooking for her family, and worrying about her son who has sustained a life-threatening injury at work. Jendreyko is in no hurry; facts about Geier's life are revealed gradually. We don't venture outside—and little interrupts her fascinating exposition of her craft—until, accompanied by a granddaughter, she returns to the Ukraine for the first time since 1943.
During World War II, young Geier worked as an interpreter for a Nazi officer in occupied Kiev. Her mother worked as his housekeeper. After the Germans retreated, Geier and her mother were brought back to Germany where they were protected and the girl received a scholarship to continue her studies. Jendreyko's efforts to get her to talk about her wartime experiences don't lead to any soul-searching. A sensitive, fiercely independent woman and a lucid intellectual force, she has little to say about the horrors of the war. Although there's nothing to suggest her work with the Germans constituted criminal collaboration, she doesn't directly address the irony of having used language to serve a barbarous regime. She does express her indebtedness to the Germans for bringing her to the West. Before the war, her father was arrested during one of Stalin's purges, and during the movie's Ukrainian segment she visits his grave and travels to the Dachau where she nursed him following his release from prison.
Is Geier wearing blinders or is she merely being tastefully reticent? How calculated are her omissions? Perhaps she considers her subsequent career as a teacher and translator, in which she has used language to edifying and humanizing effect, as her response to the suffering that occurred and which, comparatively speaking, she was able to escape. But by remaining apolitical and not addressing the full social and moral context of her life's journey, she appears to be violating one of her cardinal principles about great literary works, which she compares to finely embroidered fabrics: knowing the context in which a text was made is an essential part of translation, and her success as a translator is due to her understanding of Russian and German culture. That being so, what she doesn't say about both German and Russian culpability during the war stands out as curious. If nothing else, it reminds us that using art and language as a refuge, seeing real life through the prism of art, can be suspect, if not delusory, because it creates a partial and insular picture.
Gingerly pieced together, The Woman with the 5 Elephants has a delicacy and indirectness that's alluring and provocative at the same time. Given her fruitful career as teacher and translator, it would be unfair to accuse Geier of having avoided the most pressing moral questions about 20th-century European history. And even though it seems more a case of her keeping mum rather than Jendreyko not asking, you can't help but wish the filmmaker had guided her and hence the viewer a bit more, digging deeper between the lines rather than assuming certain meanings didn't need to be spelled out. Texts, like human lives, are constantly moving—shifting entities that are impossible to permanently fix or definitively interpret. Nevertheless, this is a case in which pictures don't tell enough of the story. Sometimes more words are needed to provide deep insight and facilitate understanding.
Distributor: Cinema Guild
Director/Screenwriter: Vadim Jendreyko
Producers: Hercli Buni, Vadim Jendreyko, Thomas Tielsch
Genre: Documentary; German- and Russian-languages, subtitled
Running time: 93 min.
Release date: July 20 NY