WOMAN WITH THE FIVE ELEPHANTS, THE (DIE FRAU MIT DEN 5 ELEFANTEN) (director/writer: Vadim Jendreyko; cinematographers: Niels Bolbrinker/Stéphane Kuthy; editor: Gisela Castronari-Jaensch; music: Daniel Almada/Martín Iannaccone; cast: Svetlana Geier, Anna Götte, Hannelore Hagen, Jurgen Klodt; Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Vadim Jendreyko/Hercli BundiInge Classen/Thomas Tielsch; Cinema Guild; 2009-Switzerland/Germany-in German and Russian, with English subtitles)
“A no-nonsense intelligently engaging biopic documentary.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A no-nonsense intelligently engaging biopic documentary by Vadim Jendreyko (“Die singende Stadt”) on the acclaimed translator of Russian literature into German, Svetlana Geier, who said so articulately about a sentence Pushkin wrote “I find that so beautiful, when one can say something wordlessly. Then one doesn’t need to translate it.” Though a conventional picture, using a narrative voice-over, interviews with the subject, archival footage and photos to tell Svetlana’s life story, it nevertheless makes for a great watch as the interesting subject lifts the film into lofty territory by her mere presence as a witness to history and her fascinating life story of being caught in the clutches between despots as evil as Hitler and Stalin.
The meditative documentary is about the tragically scarred Svetlana coming to terms with the past and how she found the role of art and literature to be what saved her life. The polite, perceptive and scholarly small and stooped elderly Ukrainian woman seen on film was born in 1923. She became a translator for the Germans in occupied Kiev during the war and lived the rest of her life in Germany after the Germans in 1943 fled. Svetlana later became renown as the world’s greatest translator of Russian literature to German, after working for over fifty years as a university teacher and translator. In the 1990s, Svetlanatranslated from Russian into German the five major novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky–known as the five elephants. A feat she’s best known for and the reason for the film’s catchy title. The twenty-year effort was completed in 2007. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment was known in Germany as Guilt and Atonement untilSvetlana’s translation in 1994. Svetlana Geier died in 2010, a year after film was released.
Jendreyko visits with the elderly Svetlana in her modest old-fashioned Freiburg, Germany apartment, where he is off-camera as he chats with her about her fascinating life, observes her mundane daily routines and hears her passionately talk about the art of translating and watches her at work– a friend named Ms Hagen types her translations and a music scholar Mr Klodt proof-reads.We learn of her Kiev progressive farmer father arrested as a political prisoner under one of Stalin’s purges and though he was released after 18 months, he died a year later in 1939 because he was left too weak after being tortured in prison for the 15-year-old Svetlana to nurse him back to health. Svetlana, and her mother remained in Kiev when the Germans occupied it in 1941, choosing not to join the fleeing Stalinists–the same people she thought who killed her father. With no illusions about what Hitler stood for, as her Jewish friend was slaughtered in Babi Yar with about 30,000 other Jews by the Germans when they rounded up all Jews during their occupation, mother and her 18-year-old daughter by accident became Nazi collaborators in order to survive these hard times. Her mom became a cleaning lady for the cultured German commander of the area and Svetlana became his translator. When the Nazis fled Kiev in 1943, she couldn’t remain in Stalin’s Russia, as a collaborator would face certain death, and left Kiev to be placed by the Nazis in a labor camp for Eastern European prisoners in Dortmond. Certain German commanders who did not know her, at great risks to their reputation, vouched for her as a translator and she was allowed to relocate to Germany on a rare alien passport and received a stipend to study languages at Freiburg as promised by the commander at Kiev.
The always absorbing film goes on to fill in some of the details of Svetlana’s life and tells how her unique gift to use language to unite all people of good will became the way she was able to save her life, even if it altered where she was to live. We also saw how emotional she could become when we witness her reaction to two events that deeply pained her. The divorced Svetlana’s 50-year-old high school shop teacher son had an accident in his class–a piece of a circular saw came loose and hit him in the head that left him paralyzed and hospitalized until his death a year and a half later. We also witness a telling emotional train trip Svetlana takes back to Kiev, after 60 years exile from the war, accompanied by her grand-daughter Anna, as she’s invited to speak at Russian schools about being a translator. This gives Svetlana a chance to visit her father’s grave and to try to locate her family’s dacha. But as Gertrude Stein said, one can never go home again.
REVIEWED ON 3/3/2012 GRADE: A-