If you’ve ever seen a movie about a writer, chances are the writer was a man. Think the maniac with writer’s block in The Shining, or the novelist in Misery who is held prisoner by a fan from hell. Woody Allen’s latest, Midnight in Paris, stars Owen Wilson as a first-time novelist who can’t finish his book without time-traveling for inspiration. I think there’s certainly a need for more movies about women-of-letters, and if you agree, you’ll want to check out the beautiful art-house movie The Woman with the 5 Elephants which opens on today at the Film Forum in New York.
Elephants is a documentary, but it’s been lovingly shot with all the visual panache and artful editing of a feature film. Director Vadim Jendreyko is in love with detail and the sort of close-ups that make the face of 86-year-old Svetlana Geier with its delicate wrinkles look as intricately adorned as the beautiful lace cloths her mother once embroidered. Geier translated Dostoevsky’s five big novels (the “elephants” of the title), a gargantuan life’s work. She also had a childhood that sounds like something out of a thriller.
Svetlana Geier was born in 1923 in Kiev in the Soviet Union. Her family opposed Stalin’s rule, and because of this her father was taken away for imprisonment and torture when she was just fifteen. When he was released, broken and ailing, it fell to her to take care of him while her mother cleaned apartments for a living. After his death, her mother insisted that Svetlana learn German, saying it would be her “dowry.” Because of her German skills, she was discovered by SS officers desperate for translators after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. They offered her a scholarship to study at a German university if she would work for a year for a German bridge-building company, and since she knew she had no future in the Soviet Union as the daughter of a political prisoner, she agreed. But when she and her mother moved to Germany, they soon found themselves imprisoned in a labor camp.
The story eventually takes a happier turn, and its ins and outs are related piecemeal in flashback as we watch Geier working on her translations (she has two friends who come to work with her and bicker over commas), cooking for her large extended family and embarking on a trip to the Ukraine with her granddaughter to visit her childhood home. She takes this trip in the dead of winter, trudging unsteadily through the snow in search of things she remembers, like the well where the storks once came to roost. But sixty years later, everything looks different, and she cannot find anyone who remembers her family.
One of my favorite parts of the film is when she talks about translating Dostoevsky’s classic Crime and Punishment, specifically discussing the artfulness by which Dostoevsky makes it possible for us to identify with the book’s murderer Raskolnikov – we’re actually afraid for him, she says, when it looks as though he might not be able to carry out his plan to murder the old lady. She describes his book as made up of many tiny stitches (“embroidered, crocheted, woven”) that it’s her job to take apart so as to put the book back together in another language.
Listening to Geier talk gets hypnotic by the end of the film. She’s such a powerful storyteller and has such a beautiful way of describing everything that even watching her do her ironing is fascinating. The threads get disoriented when you wash them, she says, so you have to iron them to teach them where they belong. When a sheet is ironed right (she says, demonstrating), it looks like freshly-fallen snow, and lying down in a freshly made bed is like setting foot in virgin territory.
The Woman with the 5 Elephants is a gorgeous filmic essay on both the art of translation and the art of remembering the past. It’s so beautifully shot that it would be a shame not to see it on the big screen. It’s scheduled to show for one week only, so if you’d like to see it, get there fast.
Writer and literary translator Susan Bernofsky blogs about translation at http://translationista.blogspot.com/. During the 2011-2012 academic year, she will be teaching in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College of the City University of New York. Catch her most recent fiction in the Brooklyn Rail.