THE WOMAN WITH THE FIVE ELEPHANTS - DVD Review

A portrait of Svetlana Geier, celebrated for her German translations of Dostoevsky.

csjlong's picture
Christopher
Long

“At least use the conjunctive form!”

(Silence)

“I capitulate.  Then write it as you see fit.”

Yes, you can expect such fireworks and more in “Literary Translators Gone Wild!” AKA “The Woman with the Five Elephants” (2009), a portrait of Svetlana Geier, celebrated for her German translations of Dostoevsky.  Geier was born in the Ukraine in 1923 and decided to buck the fashion by actually fleeing TO Germany during World War 2.  That's a long story, one of several that director Vadim Jendreyko bundles into this eccentric cinematic volume.

All jokes aside, the film is at its best when we see Geier, in her late 80s when the film begins, hard at work, sweating the nuances of every comma, transitive verb, and subordinate clause as she doggedly plugs away at her more than half century-long project.  Geier feels that she's too old to be taking any breaks, and that she owes life something, and that something is a massive body of translated Russian literature (the “five elephants” are Dostoevsky's five major novels).  Geier's work has transformed the way in which German readers understand Dostoevsky – one of several interesting tidbits from the film is that before Geier, “Crime and Punishment” was known to Germans as “Guilt and Atonement.”  Geier's project has also become a point of civic pride; a few young whippersnapper neighbors (merely pushing 70 or so) assist her in her daily rituals, patiently reading aloud her previous day's work and debating every choice.

Understandably, Jendreyko feared that “Translators in Action” would not make for a satisfying feature-length film, so he also delves into Geier's history and family life and here, unfortunately, the film falters.  Though the movie is shot with a critical rigor that inspires contemplation, Jendreyko's narrative is a shambling hodge-podge that cuts back-and-forth  from Geier at work, to a recounting of her youth and teenage years as first Stalin and then Hitler wreaked havoc in the Ukraine, and occasionally to unexpected events in Geier's current life, such as a terrible accident which befalls her son. 

Though it's hard not to respect the director for tackling such an inherently non-visual subject, it's also a challenge to sit through endless shots of Geier sitting on a train as she returns, after more than half a century, to her hometown for a lecture.  The heart and soul of the film is Jendreyko's obvious affection for his subject and his belief that following her every move is inherently of interest simply because of who she is.  But the film's treatment of Geier's personal history is a superficial one that leaves many questions unanswered.

Yet there's no denying that Svetlana Geier is a compelling presence.  Even listening to her expound on the virtues of crisp white linen (“Men cannot understand how beautiful this is”) is quite inspiring.  It would have been interesting to see what Jendreyko came up with if he went great guns-a-blazin' and shot the entire film in Geier's study, just her at her books, and with no voice-overs or digressions – a Bressonian documentary perhaps?  But even if this film feels like a compromise solution, it's not exactly a commercial sell-out, and it's worth seeing just because someone had the temerity to make it.

Video:
The film is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer.  Sometimes when you're on a long string of Blu-ray viewing, it's a little difficult to recalibrate to SD, but for a standard transfer this is very strong and I'm not sure how much the material would benefit from a high-def upgrade.  Video quality varies with some of the archival footage, but this is yet another strong transfer from Cinema Guild.

Audio:
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mix is pretty straightforward and it's hard for me to judge how clear the German and Russian dialogue is, but it all sounded clean to me.  English subtitles support the German/Russian audio.

Extras:
The disc includes 25 minuted of Deleted Scenes as well as a film called “Portrait” (2002, 28 min.)  “Portrait” is directed by Russian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa and consists largely of static tableaux in the Russian countryside.  I liked it very much.

Film Value:
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the film as several other critics, but I felt the best material (Geier at work) was diluted by some of the other narrative choices.  But how often do you get to watch a Ukranian woman translate Russian literature into German?  That's the magic of cinema, my friends. 

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
7
Extras
7
Film Value
6