The Woman with the 5 Elephants

The Woman with the 5 Elephants: Svetlana Geier and her granddaughter.

For two days now, I’ve been searching for words to describe this astonishing documentary about Svetlana Geier. She is the preeminent translator of Russian literature into German; languages, she points out, which are not compatible. This is a film about a life of the mind. It is as much about silence as it is about the love of language and literature. It is also, of course, about the outward events of Geier’s extraordinary life, shaped and interrupted as it was by World War II.

Visually, the film is stunning, but even more striking is its intimacy, a testimony to Vadim Jendreyko's ability to earn and maintain the trust of his subject.

This intimacy allows for uncommon subtlety and nuance. Geier shows us a tablecloth embroidered by her mother: dragons—white on white. As Geier irons her linens, she describes how the threads become disoriented when they are washed, and how ironing reorients them. Text and textile, she tells us, share the same root.

We see her slowly mounting a staircase to her office. We see her secretary waiting for Geier to read one line and then another, so she can type them on an Olympia manual typewriter. We witness her discussion with an editor about the placement of a comma or a dash—all riveting because of this growing intimacy. And her powerful gaze.

There are tense moments as well, when Jendreyko asks her about her complicity with the Nazis, for example. Yet even this confrontation is respectful, and Geier answers the hard questions with dignity and humility.

“I am too old for breaks,” she says early on in the film. “I owe the world something.”

And slowly, gradually we get a sense of what she feels she owes the world—and why.

“Translation,” she tells a group of Russian students, “is not a caterpillar crawling across the page, but must always emerge from the whole. One has to see it as a whole, love it as a whole.”

And this is what the film reminds us to do if we are to have any insight at all.

Svetlana Geier died on 7 November 2010 at the age of 87 in Freiburg. Germany.

The Woman with the 5 Elephants plays through Thursday at the Vancity Theatre on Seymour. 

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