This week at the Wellington Film Society: The weight of history; the power of language.
The Film Society’s typically excellent Goethe Institut programme kicked off with The Woman with the Five Elephants, a documentary about translator Svetlana Geier, in her later years. The Ukranian-born German translator is most famous in Germany for her translations of five Dostoyevsky novels (the “Five Elephants” of the title), and the film at first follows her at work. From what begins as a slender premise moves into a much wider and intriguing look at twentieth century history, as World War Two, and the inevitable East/West dichotomy of Russian art, shape her life.
The Woman with the Five Elephants is a gentle portrait of its protagonist. The primary incident in the film is Geier’s return to Ukraine, a country she left at the same time of the Nazi retreat. She had been working as a translator for the Nazis, despite the horrific massacre in Babi Yar outside Kiev. But her life also was affected by other major historical events, such as the Stalinist purges (which ruined her father), and as the story develops, other personal tragedies. But surrounding this personal torment, director Vadim Jendreyko also shows Geier at work translating, teaching, and generally pottering about.
Jendreyko also uses the act of “translating” to excellent effect. The negotiations in contexts, the arguments over meaning and social settings, the compromises and the erasing—all form a backdrop not only to Geier’s work as a translator, but to the way that she has had to ultimately live her life. The notion of memory (or suppression of it), suffering, rehabilitation, and an attempt to form order in an immoral and chaotic world—such powerful themes in Dostoyevsky’s work—are all reflected by the way Geier works, and the consequences of twentieth century history on her.
The documentary itself is filmed in a very understated, subtle way. It has the effect of appearing slightly detached as a result, and the tonal shifts between Geier’s current and past life occasionally jar. Overall though, it’s a moving study of an individual’s response to troubled times, and the grace and redemption allowed by the act of reimagining.