While the dramatic possibilities inherent in a docu about an elderly translator might not be immediately obvious, the personality within the evocatively titled "The Woman With the 5 Elephants" can't fail to grip intelligent viewers.

While the dramatic possibilities inherent in a docu about an elderly translator might not be immediately obvious, the personality within the evocatively titled “The Woman With the 5 Elephants” can’t fail to grip intelligent viewers. Svetlana Geier is the woman behind celebrated Russian-to-German translations of Dostoyevsky’s novels — her “5 Elephants” — but she’s also someone still coming to terms with a past haunted by Stalinist persecution and a complicated proximity to Ukraine’s Nazi occupiers. Fests should stampede to program helmer Vadim Jendreyko’s beautifully composed gem before its likely Euro cable pickup.

First seen in her pleasant home in Freiburg, Germany, Geier appears as a rather serious scholar driven by a stereotypically German work ethic that prizes critical thinking. In her mid-80s and slightly stooped from osteoporosis, she’s dedicated her life to interpreting the masterworks of Russian literature into German while raising a family and teaching.

At first, Jendreyko’s narration conveys straightforward information in a simple style. Then Geier is invited to speak at a school in Kiev, her hometown, and a different side, warmer and very sympathetic but no less cerebral, is revealed. Geier movingly recounts how her father — an educated man who became a victim of one of Stalin’s purges — miraculously returned home after 18 months of torture, and how she cared for him before his death, listening to nightmarish stories she’s since repressed, though she knows they’re locked away inside her.

When the Nazis invaded, Geier’s German studies came in handy, and she became a translator for the German officer Count Kerssenbrock. With a painful sense of loss, she recalls the deportation of a Jewish friend and the unspeakable massacre at Babi Yar (“It has never become the past,” she says), but she maintains an abstract image of the people she worked for, unable to look at them as representatives of Nazism. Yet Jendreyko cleverly inserts here a discussion of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” (nicely paired with scenes from Robert Wiene’s 1923 film “Raskolnikow”), in which she wholeheartedly agrees with the novel’s message that no ends can justify evil means.

Without judging or ever losing sympathy for Geier, the helmer gets to the heart of the matter, revealing the problematic, contradictory nature of history and partisanship: Geier was saved by the Germans, who enabled her to emigrate rather than face the revenge inevitable for collaborators, but she’s also painfully aware of the Nazis’ legacy. Jendreyko recognizes the complexities and conflicts inside a woman who can brilliantly analyze a passage in literature but isn’t always able to make parallels with her own past.

The helmer’s style of gradually revealing more and more keeps the viewer enthralled, and his terrific compositional eye makes the docu a pleasure to watch. Jendreyko has a painter’s feel for light, working with its sources to sympathetically illuminate Geier’s face, etched with intelligence and sensitivity.

The Woman With the 5 Elephants

Switzerland-Germany

Production

A Mira Film (Switzerland)/Filmtank, ZDF/3Sat (Germany)/Schweizer Fernsehen (Switzerland) production. (International sales: Cineworx, Basel, Switzerland.) Produced by Hercli Bundi, Vadim Jendreyko, Thomas Tielsch. Directed, written by Vadim Jendreyko.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W), Niels Bolbrinker, Stephane Kuthy; editor, Gisela Castronari-Jaensch; music, Daniel Almada, Martin Iannaccone; sound (Dolby Digital), Patrick Becker, Florian Beck. Reviewed on DVD at Locarno Film Festival (Appellations Suisse), Aug. 14, 2009. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Svetlana Geier. Narrator: Vadim Jendreyko. (German, Russian dialogue)
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