Svetlana Geier walks with a bent back, an infirmity that seems to act as physical evidence of a long life piled high with pain. In her late 80s, she’s the avowed matriarch of a large family and keeps her probing mind active, plowing through huge, knotty tomes as one of the world’s preeminent translators of Russian literature. Profiling such a figure could easily turn into a fawning commemoration, or a pat statement on inspiring obstinance in the face of adversity, but The Woman with the 5 Elephants manages to sidestep these pitfalls, shaping a smart profile that’s affecting but never trite or sappy.
The five elephants are the quintet of superlative works written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, all of which Geier has translated, some multiple times. The film doesn’t spend much time trumpeting her accomplishments, but we get a clear sense of her skill, in patient scenes that follow her elaborate process. There are no talking-head interviews to comment or give perspective, and little narrated information about her work. These facts are relayed naturally, and the film eventually reveals itself as a specific appreciation of a job done well, rather than a rosy-eyed celebration.
Watching her at work, parsing the wild complexities of language as she converts Russian into German, the doc becomes a meditation on enforcing order in a world that refuses to accept it. Geier’s life reads like a catalogue of random horror, with a father who was mysteriously imprisoned by Soviet authorities, tortured for years, and then just as mysteriously released, only to die of his injuries a few months later. During the German occupation of her Ukrainian homeland, her best friend was murdered in the notorious Babi Yar ravine massacre, and Geier was shipped to Germany to work for a Nazi official, a lucky break that probably saved her life. This misfortune escalates during the making of the film, when her grown son suffers serious brain damage after a freak accident during a carpentry class.
Her resilience in standing up to all this suffering, and the stubborn step of making the country which persecuted her into a new home, shapes Geier into an entrancingly determined figure. Jendrenkyo classes up this portrayal, filming the old woman in standard medium shots, but also in close-up, with special focus on her spidery fingers, whether she’s tracing them over the pages of a book or peeling an onion. He also injects impressionistic shots of landscape, smudgily shot from the windows of trains and cars, moments of odd placidity that grant added levity to this assured portrait.