Review | "The Woman with the Five Elephants"
Born in Ukraine in 1923, Geier grew up under the reign of Josef Stalin,who had her father arrested as a political prisoner. Her father, however, became one of the lucky few who were actually released from such imprisonment, but he died a little over a year after his release from injuries caused by the torture he endured behind bars.
However, when the Nazis invaded in 1941, Geier found herself living under a different sort of regime, one that scorned her non-Aryan roots, but one that also respected her intelligence, and she found work as a translator for various German military commanders, whom she defends to this day as being separate from the heinous crimes of Adolf Hitler. One even put his military career on the line to see that she got out safely and received a good education, resulting in his being shipped off to the Eastern front.
|Svetlana Geier in Vadim Jendreyko’s THE WOMAN WITH THE FIVE ELEPHANTS.
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
But it is certainly no game. Geier takes her work seriously, and she knows what she wants. To her, a translation is about seeing the big picture of the work, to capture the subtleties and cadence of the text, to be as true to the spirit of the author's intent as possible, while making the work her own. She is an artist unto herself, a brilliant craftsman whose work is every bit as original and powerful as the authors she translates. It is almost as if she distills a work down to its root and rebuilds it anew as a singular, even more impressive work of art.
|Svetlana Geier and friend Mr. Klondt in Vadim Jendreyko’s THE WOMAN WITH THE FIVE ELEPHANTS.
Courtesy of Cinema Guild.
Jendreyko wisely steps back and allows Geier to tell her own story with her own words, only occasionally stepping in to fill in necessary historical details. This is her story, and she tells it well, offering a very special insight into the ways of the world. For his part, Jendreyko turns academic pursuits into something truly electrifying, crafting a documentary on translating 19th century novels that is wholly compelling, and even thrilling. The creation of any great art is always an act of elation, but here it almost attains something divine. As Geier says, the goal of existence should not be mere existence, but to transcend one's existence. She transcends not only existence, but art itself, and The Woman with the Five Elephants transcends the documentary form and attains its own sort of artfulness - a quiet and lyrical study of a truly remarkable human being.
GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)
THE WOMAN WITH THE FIVE ELEPHANTS | Directed by Vadim Jendreyko | Featuring Svetlana Geier | Not rated | In German and Russian w/English subtitles | Opens Wednesday, July 20, at the Film Forum in NYC.