The Woman with the 5 Elephants (Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten)

“When one washes a fabric, its threads lose their orientation. One has to help the thread, really, to retrieve its original orientation.” Svetlana Geier leans over her ironing and moves a finger along the material, so clean and white: “There is always one thread within several threads,” she adds.

Like many moments in The Woman with the 5 Elephants (Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten), this one seems metaphorical, its possible meanings, stretching like the fresh expanse of Geier’s tablecloth. As she irons, she sees past the material, recalling an encounter with Moby Dick, specifically, the chapter where he details the whiteness of the whale, comparing it to new-fallen snow. For Geier, the language evokes or even constitutes an experience: “One has the feeling as though one is the first human being walking through snow for the first time,” she muses.

Geier’s move from housework to Melville is lovely and precise, and also indicative of the way her mind works, at least as you glimpse it in Vadim Jendreyko’s documentary, premiering at Film Forum on 20 July. A translator of Russian literature into German for 50 years, the film observes, she has developed a specialty since the 1990s, in Fyodor Dostoyevsky. His work is massive, of course, as well as perpetually revealing possibilities. She has made multiple translations of each of his “five elephants,” those tomes including The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot (when Geier shows her copies, each is huge and weighty in her hands, leading her to suggest that for the sake of comfort, at least, Crime and Punishment might be divided into two volumes).

For Geier, her back bent and her hands gnarled, translation is way of thinking and feeling, an attitude as much as a vocation. “What one discovers again and again, and that is the sign of an excellent text, is that the text moves,” she explains. After an early reading, “one has prepared it and sees everything, knows everything. But suddenly, something is there that one has never noticed before. A text like this is inexhaustible.” As Geier speaks, it’s clear she’s in love with the nuance of language, with the potentiality of sound and intonation and rhythm, with the ways words intersect and overlap and also appear on the page.

In a kind of appreciation, the film translates Geier’s sensibility visually, its compositions of light and shadow echoing her thoughts. As she describes her relationships with her colleagues — her typist Mrs. Hagen or Mr. Klodt, a “musician who reads my translations aloud” — they appear in close, uncluttered frames, their gazes intent as they examine paragraphs or ponder verb forms. Each morning at 9am, Geier meets with Mrs. Hagen, who arrives with rolls and jam. (“She is one of my greatest godsends,” Geier says graciously, admiring her decency and her “incredible memory”). They sit across from each other at a table positioned before a window, the sunlight soft on their aging faces. Geier and Mr. Klodt sit at the same table, he in a tweedy jacket and tie. “In these meetings,” Geier says, “The book itself is in the background. Now we are really concentrating on words, spaces, and consistencies.”

Again and again, as Geier speaks, you’re aware of these spaces, of the rhythms of her voice, of the text that’s moving. Or more accurately, more than one text: her focus may be a book before her, or its most recent translation, but the film takes her life as another text to be revealed. Her father was a victim of Stalin’s cleansing programs, imprisoned in 1938 and then, miraculously released (one of only a thousand or so who were let go, while 27 million were killed). His teeth broken and his eardrum shattered, he described for her and her mother his experience in the prison, but she is unable to remember what he said: “It’s clear to me that I carry that somewhere within me and that then, when I was 14 or 15, I locked it away, so to speak, in order to survive.” Geier does recall that he wore tall boots, and the patterns of his shirts, but of his prison memories, she says, “I know nothing.”

This raises questions the film pursues, delicately. What is knowledge of the past? How it might translate into a present? As the film begins, Geier hasn’t been back to Kiev since she and her mother left, in 1943. Now the camera crew follows her, with her granddaughter Anna, as they travel to back to Ukraine. The train ride presents its own set of rhythms, with long looks out at passing dry brush or snowy landscapes, set alongside close-ups of the women, rocking in their seats or standing at windows, watching as the sun sets.

As they move, Geier talks about words and grammar, the incompatibility of languages, the work of translation. She recalls as well how she and her mother survived the Germans’ invasion and her work for a Nazi officer as an interpreter. She doesn’t detail this work, or apologize for it, but she does wonder at what she didn’t know. “I never associated Kerssenbrock with what happened there,” she says. “I mean, Hitler has nothing in common with Goethe or Schiller or Thomas Mann, and I cannot regard a person and the nation into which he was born as matching.” Looking back, she says, “I cannot change how it was. I didn’t consider it.”

Now, she considers the choices people make, in literature as in life. Fascinated by the “tiny microscopic stitches” Dostoyevsky puts together to show Raskolnikow’s decision to commit murder. “Incredible,” she observes, “The text is so finely embroidered, crocheted, whatever, woven.”

Whatever. It’s a detail here, forgettable and tossed away. And it suggests again the mobility of words, their precision and, perhaps more intriguing, their imprecision. The Woman with the 5 Elephants reveals and repeats such shifts, underlines the values of translations. “Why do people translate?” Geier asks. “It is the yearning for something that keeps escaping, for the unrivaled original, for the final, for the essential.” In other words, it’s a desire for an end that can never be achieved.

RATING 8 / 10