10 June 2013

Monday Film Review: 5 Elephants

The Goethe Institut in Chicago is always showing movies or having cultural events to promote German culture. Despite taking classes there and being generally impressed, I never made it to their events until now.  They were showing Die Frau mit den 5 Elephanten (The Woman with 5 Elephants) and I forced my husband to attend with me.

Die Frau mit den 5 Elephanten is a documentary centered on Svetlana Geier, a prominent translator of Russian literature in Germany.  The film starts out by introducing us to Svetlana in her home in Germany and her philosophy on translation.  Gradually, the film focuses on her past as she prepares to visit Ukraine.  Svetlana grew up in Kyev when it was occupied by the Russians and part of the USSR.  Throughout the film, it is revealed that her father was a political prisoner of the Stalinist purges for 18 months and lived only shortly past his release.  Svetlana reminded the filmmakers repeatedly that it was highly unusual for such a prisoner to be released.  When he had returned, he told her and her mother all the details of his abuse, but to her great shame, Svetlana says she doesn't remember any of it.  At 15 years old, she was tasked with nursing her ailing father, which even in the film, she recognizes as being beyond her capacity at that age.  At 18, the Nazis invaded and began their purge of Jews - included one of Svetlana's best friends.  She did not establish the connection between her best friend's disappearance and the Nazis that helped her.  She had serendipitously met Count Kerssenbrock who connected her with the Ukraine Academy of Sciences, where she did a great deal of translation.  This work for the SS led to her miraculous encounters with Germans who made it possible for her to study in Germany and bring her mother with her.  She ended up staying in Germany, marrying a German man, and began translating Russian literature while also lecturing in many universities; she never against set foot on Ukrainian soil until 2007 as the cameras followed her.  The title references her translation of the "5 elephants", Dostoyevsky's most famous works: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov, Demons, and The Raw Youth/The Adolescent.

The joy in the story lies in the details and I really enjoyed hearing about the arc of her life and her reflections on it.  What I find infinitely compelling and interesting about these kinds of personal stories is that they defy the greater historical story arc.  Svetlana experienced two dictatorships and her final words on the Germans (who killed her best friend and occupied her country) was that many had selflessly offered their help to make her work possible and that she owed them for this ("I'm translating to pay my debts").  While it's so tempting and easy to continually paint all Nazis/Germans as evil, the truth is so much more complicated.  I feel this way about USSR-era stories as well.  Nothing is as compelling as a personal story that defies these tropes and archetypes we have built up.  Her ideas about translation really speak to the spirit of a language and the work she is tasked with, again destroying archetypes that have been built up.  She reflects the spirit of artistic freedom and truthfulness.

While the documentary did not necessarily have a clear focus beyond being about Svetlana Geier, I enjoyed it.  Her musings on translation ("You must translate with your nose in the air") and Dostoyevsky's work are prolific and thoughtful.  One of my and my husband's favorite parts were her interactions with her translation colleagues (Herr Klodt was the best).  The subject was interesting enough, but the documentary kind of plodded in a less-than-linear way.  The subject of the documentary is too good to dismiss it entirely, though I have seen documentaries with a better sense of cohesion.  The interview with the director here is definitely worth a read as well.