Listen to what Svetlana Geier has to say about her life. You’ll be glad you did.
Dir. Vadim Jendreyko, 2010, 96 min, Viewed via Netflix Instant
There are a lot of people out there who are just quietly remarkable. Svetlana Geier is one of them. An esteemed professor and renowned translator of Russian literature, she’s gleaned a lot of wisdom from a long and storied life. The Woman with the 5 Elephants is one of those “long conversation with a wise person” documentaries. It’s extreme specificity in scope belies how much you could learn about life and literature, just by listening to this woman talk.
The five elephants of the title are the five great works by Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Raw Youth), all of which Geier has translated from Russian to German, to great acclaim. It’s far more interesting to watch her at work in translation than one might expect. In a way, it’s a form of creative writing all its own, as she must find a way to preserve what made the original words so great as she makes it understandable for a different audience. There’s great, meticulous thought that goes into every word choice and piece of punctuation.
But Svetlana is more than just an incredibly smart woman. She’s survived two different dictatorships, having grown up in Ukraine under Stalinist purges, before later escaping death at the hands of the Nazis only by the skin of her wits. The fact that she was able to make a home in Germany as the war ended is an amazing accomplishment all on its own. To merely recite the full breadth of her life story wouldn’t do it justice; I want to you to hear her tell it for herself. The film follows her as she returns to Ukraine for the first time in over sixty years, revisiting the ghost of her old home. She recounts various aspects of her tribulations along the way, and it’s a riveting journey.
Alongside these reminisces are long soliloquies about what these experiences have taught Geier about life. She’s intelligent and articulate almost to the point of casual lyricism. Watching her speak is a joy. Actually, watching her do anything is a joy, since the movie is so beautifully shot. The camera captures mundane details in beautiful ways, from watching Svetlana grind out a pastry to a flag flapping in the wind. This is a quiet, deliberate film. It truly captures the feeling you get when sharing company with an elderly person (Which should not be taken as a negative).
I watched The Woman with the 5 Elephants on a lark, after reading a brief recommendation on a movie social networking site. It was the most pleasant surprise that I’ve had in ages, and I dearly want you to share that feeling of wonderful discovery. You’ll want to meet and listen to Svetlana Geier.