Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten (The Woman with 5 Elephants)
Winter 2013 Documentary series
March 27, 2013 at 7:00pm
Directed by Vadim Jendreyko
Screenplay by Vadim Jendreyko
Starring Svetlana Geier, Anna Götte and Hannelore Hagen
Rated G ·
Switzerland and Germany
German and Russian with English subtitles
The Woman with the 5 Elephants
The 5 Elephants are Dostoyevsky’s great literary works, all of which have been translated by the 87-year-old Svetlana Geier, considered the world’s most masterful translator of Russian literature into German. The filmmaker visits with a woman whose fascinating, dramatic life story has been coloured by some of the most violent events in 20th century European history: Stalin’s purges of the kulaks (responsible for her father’s death) and the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine (ultimately responsible for saving her life and leading to a university education in Germany). A rigorous intellectual whom we are privileged to watch parse the language, word by word, with her colleague, she warms the screen with the depths of her dignity and humanity. Language as a civilizing force is the thread that runs through Geier’s life, and it illuminates every minute of the film.
“Banish all thoughts of rampaging pachyderms and any sassy gals who tame them. In Vadim Jendreyko’s wonderful biographical doc, the elephants are purely metaphorical, though there is an actual woman involved. That would be the now-deceased Svetlana Geier, the translator (from Russian to German) of the five major novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
For the film’s first section, we’re nestled right alongside this exuberantly intelligent soul in her modest Deutschland abode as she prepares meals, attends fastidiously to work and sounds off, with great elan, about her lifelong career. (“One doesn’t translate [Dostoyevsky] with impunity,” she says with an ingratiating mix of confidence and humbleness.)
“It would probably be enough just to observe Geier’s daily routine; she’s fascinating even when silently contemplating a page in her next project. But the movie’s scope inevitably, and beneficially, widens when a personal tragedy sends her back to the Ukrainian homeland she left near the end of WWII. Jendreyko elegantly sketches in the details of his subject’s life and the historical events surrounding her coming-of-age—out of which emerges a fascinating subtext about the malleable powers of language. Raised during Stalin and Hitler’s destructive regimes, the bilingual Geier too often saw words used as a despotic tool. So she dedicated her life to using these tongues tainted by fascism in ways that would enlighten and exalt rather than oppress. Thanks to her, we’re all the better for it.” (Keith Uhlich, TimeOut)
“A few years ago, I read about a Ukrainian woman who survived the Nazi occupation during World War II by learning German and becoming a translator. She was so precocious and had such a facility with languages that even as a teenager, German leaders recognized the value of her expertise.
“The woman, Svetlana Geier, is 87 and the subject of a German documentary, Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten (The Woman With the 5 Elephants).
“When we meet Geier at the beginning of the film, she has just completed new translations of Dostoyevsky’s five great novels (her five elephants): Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils, A Raw Youth and The Brothers Karamasov. She is the epitome of a serious German scholar — a critical thinker with a strong work ethic. As we learn more about Geier, however, we see the complexity of her past and the ways she deals with the contradictions of working for the people who brought so much pain to those close to her. She believes that she owes her life and career to the Germans, but is very aware of Nazi horror. The film interweaves her life and work to reveal a remarkable woman with a love for language and an unwavering respect for the writers she translates.
“Geier is still translating, her mind still sharp. She works with people as exacting as she is – including a musician whose job is to read the translations out loud. The rhythm of the language and the precision of the word choice are the subject of lively debate. Geier notices everything about language — and is not satisfied until it ‘works.’ ”
“Svetlana Geier is well respected in European literary circles as a gifted translator who has helped create excellent German editions of the works of the great Russian authors, and has won particular acclaim for her translations of Dostoyevsky’s major novels, which she calls ‘the five elephants.’
“While Geier admires the work of Russia’s literary tradition, her personal relationship with the nation has been a good bit trickier; Geier was born in Kiev (Ukraine) but her father, an intellectual, found himself on the wrong side of Stalin’s underlings and spent over a year being tortured by the KGB. During World War II, Geier’s fluency in German earned her a good job working for Nazi forces occupying Kiev, but she also witnessed firsthand the pogroms against Russian Jews and Axis violence against Russian civilians.
“All these years later, Geier lives and works in Germany, and has an uneasy relationship with the land of her birth and her adopted homeland, having seen the best and worst in the history of both nations. Filmmaker Vadim Jendreyko offers a profile of Svetlana Geier that focuses both on her literary work and her often harrowing life story in The Woman With the 5 Elephants (Die Frau Mit den 5 Elefanten).” (Mark Deming, Rovi)