The Elephant Woman

Vadim Jendreyko’s documentary The Woman with the 5 Elephants is quite possibly the most beautiful movie ever made about a translator. The film’s protagonist, Svetlana Geier, who died last year at the age of 87, is famous for her translations into German of Dostoevsky’s five huge novels (the “elephants” of the title). But this film is no mere biopic – it is a gorgeous essay on the art of translation and the complex and often fraught ways in which the life’s work of this talented woman resonates with the self-transformations she herself underwent, having been born in Kiev, where her world was turned upside-down first by Stalin’s purges, then by the German occupation.As a filmmaker, Jendreyko is obsessed with the materiality of the world and the way its details (a comma that might be preserved or deleted, the lacework of a tablecloth) provide context and texture that define experience. We see Geier working on her translations, often with the help of a typist or with a scholar-friend who debates with her about every word. We see her cooking and arranging things in her apartment, all the while talking about her life and art, and filmed in a way that makes her world look magical. The way she speaks is extraordinary. “A translation,” she tells us in the film’s trailer, “is not a caterpillar crawling from left to right.” “Why do people translate? It is a yearning for something that keeps escaping, for the unrivaled original.”

I fell in love with the film when I saw it at its Zurich premiere in December 2009 and have been impatient to see it subtitled and brought to the States so all my friends could see it too. Now it will be opening at Film Forum for a one-week run, from July 20 – July 26. I urge you to go see it right away. This is one film you’ll want to catch on the big screen.

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