Monday, July 18, 2011

A Life Made Possible by Language: The Woman with the Five Elephants

Svetlana Geier understands only too well the Finnish and Baltic World War II experience. As the daughter and wife of a Ukrainian kulak purged by Stalin, Geier and her mother welcomed the Germans as liberators. In an era well before the internet, rumors of the National Socialists’ mass deportations of Jews were widely dismissed as crude Soviet propaganda. Needless to say, Geier and her countrymen soon learned otherwise. Yet by that time, her demonstrated aptitude for translating Russian into German earned Geier German patrons, setting in motion a literary life fraught with irony. Shortly before her death, Vadim Jendreyko documented Geier (nee Ivanova, 1923-2010) at work and finally revisiting her Ukrainian homeland in The Woman with the Five Elephants (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

Geier’s elephants are the five great novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky that collectively could crush a man of sleight frame. For reasons she explains at length, Dostoyevsky is a touchstone figure in her life. His work has a richness and complexity that always yields up something new whenever she tackles him. Yet, she repeatedly stresses Dostoyevsky’s conviction that a problematic means never justify the ends, despite the rather obvious implications of Geier’s life, which could easily argue otherwise.

As the film begins, Geier’s day-to-day routine largely seems to revolve around her last great commission: definitive new German translations of Dostoyevsky’s elephants. However, Jendreyko’s camera slowly insinuates itself into the private Geier’s life. Eventually, we learn Geier’s son, a middle aged shop teacher, sustained injuries in a freak workshop accident not unlike those her father suffered at the hands of his Soviet torturers. With this grim symmetry in mind, Geier finally decides to revisit the Kiev she left mere steps ahead of the Soviet re-conquest, bringing one of her granddaughters along for moral support.

Frankly, Geier’s eventful story is far more interesting than she is as an on-screen interview subject. While she certainly has plenty of insight to offer on Dostoyevsky and the translation process in general, her rare offerings of current events commentary are rather wan conventional wisdom.

Indeed, since few audiences outside of Geier’s Germany and Jendreyko’s Switzerland will have occasion to appreciate her translations, it is a shame Elephants did not double down on the WWII era drama of her story. In particular, one cannot help wondering about the ultimate fate of Count Constantin Stamati, a high ranking official at the Ministry for Occupied Eastern Territories, who was banished to the Eastern Front for his part in granting Geier and her mother legal sanctuary in Germany.

Jendreyko is clearly a sensitive interviewer, coaxing Geier to forthrightly examine the extraordinary circumstances of her life. Indeed, the period beginning with her father’s brutal imprisonment under Stalin up through her flight to Germany would make an engrossing narrative drama. As it stands, Jendryko’s film will definitely broaden general audiences’ perspective on history and literature. Definitely recommended (though more for the former than the latter), Elephants opens this Wednesday (7/20) at New York’s Film Forum.