Svetlana Geier is one of those people who seems to have lived her entire life for the purpose of becoming a great documentary subject. Raised in Kiev by a progressive farmer who was later imprisoned by Stalin’s regime, Geier lived in a community that was “liberated” by the Nazis, and while many of her Jewish neighbors were subsequently killed, Geier made herself useful as a translator, eventually settling in Germany before the end of the war. There, she gained renown as a scholar, professor, and translator of Russian literature, dedicating herself especially to the novels of Dostoyevsky. (She refers to his major books as “the five elephants.”) Filmmaker Vadim Jendreyko caught up with Geier when she was in her 80s—stooped and slow-moving, yet still full of insights into the philosophy of translation, and how it’s important to consider the entire text, not just its trickier components.
Geier died in 2010, but The Woman With The 5 Elephants preserves her intellectual rigor and curiosity, while also catching her in the middle of some drama. During the time Jendreyko filmed Geier, one of her sons suffered a devastating injury, which led Geier to return to Kiev for the first time since she fled during WWII. There, she recounts the gripping story of her youth, which Jendreyko staggers with her discussions of the ethical underpinnings of Dostoyevsky, and her observations about the precision of the embroidered patterns on her linens. It’s all connected: the way Geier finds something new in a book every time she attempts a new translation, and the way her own life story has been re-contextualized with time. (It’s significant that a woman who owes her life to some Nazis is responsible for the German title of one of Dostoyevsky’s most famous novels being changed from Guilt And Atonement to Crime And Punishment.)
Jendreyko has clearly considered how best to translate an entire life into a movie. The Woman With The 5 Elephants isn’t flawless; as articulate and fascinating as Geier could be, she was also dry at times. But Jendreyko cleverly parcels out her personal history, and he isn’t afraid to break up the talkiness with long silences and luminous images. One sequence in particular, where Jendreyko films trains coupling and uncoupling in a Kiev railyard, could be read as a visual representation of Geier’s life’s work. Or, alternately, as an illustration of a comment she makes at the start of the documentary: “I find that so beautiful, when one can say something wordlessly. Then one doesn’t need to translate it.”