The Woman With the 5 Elephants -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

VIENNA -- Connoisseurs of wildlife documentaries lured by the exotic-sounding title may possibly be disappointed by "The Woman With the 5 Elephants" ("Die Frau mit den 5 Elefanten"), but most everyone else will find their expectations delightfully exceeded. Conventional enough in form but fascinating in content, it profiles Swetlana Geier, an octogenarian who has dedicated her career to translating the great works of Russian literature into German. The result is that rare thing in cinema -- an intellectually-stimulating crowd-pleaser.

Nominated for Best Documentary at the recent European Film Awards, director Vadim Jendreyko's belated follow-up to his 2001 debut "Bashkim" could well parlay film-festival success into limited distribution in doc-friendly territories. A Swiss/German production, co-funded by Swiss TV, it's also a natural for small-screen exposure further down the line.

Still indomitably bright at 85, Geier is introduced at the office in her home where she continues her meticulous translation work, aided, in scenes loaded with droll deadpan humor, by collaborators who are themselves some way past normal retirement age.

Geier's arduous intellectual labors are nimbly contrasted with the more humdrum tasks she performs for herself around the house. Obviously much beloved by her extended family, she prizes her independence as much as her commitment to her beloved Russian masters.

It's 19th century genius Fyodor Dostoyevsky who is responsible for the "elephants" of that quirky (and somewhat awkward) title, namely, his five major novels, most famously "Crime and Punishment." Before Geier came along, that tome was known in German as "Guilt and Atonement" - and the different emphasis takes on extra significance as we gradually learn details of Geier's complex biography.

Born in Ukraine, Geier's teenage precocity and facility with languages brought her to the attention of the country's Nazi occupiers during World War II. Some fellow countrymen saw the Germans as saviors after the excesses of Soviet Communism. While she doesn't apologize for her youthful collaboration with the fascists - and is clearly sorrowed when recounting the notorious massacre at Babi Yar, where one of her closest friends was killed, it's telling that she left her homeland for good when the Germans were driven out in 1943. She describes her life work as repaying her "enormous debt to Germany."

Quoting Dostoyevsky's view that "there is no end that can justify wrong means," she also cites a Ukrainian folk-tale which stresses the importance of following "your inner voice, even when it means acting against general, prevailing opinions."

These are murky moral waters by any measure, and it's to Jendreyko's credit that he allows us room to ponder the ramifications of Geier's testimony as she travels, accompanied by her granddaughter, back to Kiev for the first time in over six decades.

A charismatic screen-presence, Geier is so illuminating on the mysterious craft of translation (which "has to emerge from the whole -- one must see it as a whole, and love it as a whole") that a fine documentary could be made without leaving the confines of her study. But this remarkable woman's journey through geographical space and personal history gives "The Woman with the 5 Elephants" an extra dimension that lifts it far above the general run of current non-fiction cinema.

Venue: Vienna International Film Festival
Production companies: Mira Film, Filmtank, ZDF/3sat
Director: Vadim Jendreyko
Producers: Hercli Bundi, Vadim Jendreyko, Thomas Tielsch
Associate producers: Inge Claasen, Urs Augstburger, Marion Bornschier
Directors of photography: Niels Bolbrinker, Stephane Kuthy
Music: Daniel Almada, Martin Iannaccone
Sound design: Patrick Becker
Editor: Gisela Castronari-Jaensch
Sales: Mira Film, Basel
No rating, 93 minutes