In Vadim Jendreyko’s gorgeously shot documentary feature, we meet the indomitable 85-year-old Svetlana Geier, a woman considered to be the greatest translator of Russian literature into German. She is a woman acutely aware of the echoes and reflections that bounce back to us when we really see, when we really listen, when we really absorb what surrounds us. And that the exact right words, somehow, contain the ability to say something wordlessly. “I believe that each spiritual experience leads us to treat one another better, to not strike others dead. Quite elementary. And I believe that language is a very effective remedy.”When we meet her, she has just completed new translations of 19th-century literary genius Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s five great novels, the “elephants” of the title: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils, A Raw Youth, The Brothers Karamasov. Before Geier came along, the tome known as Crime and Punishment 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. The heft of her life is just as substantive, just as heavy with hidden detail, as each of these seminal literary works.
Her life is ordered, peaceful, purposeful in every way, from the type and variety of vegetables she buys at the town market (everything she cooks is made from scratch) to the way she irons her handmade linens, explaining to Jendreyko that the fabric being caressed under her hands, the warp and weave of each thread, creates a distinct texture and could only have been made in this particular way by its maker; the soft, flowing, beautiful piece of cloth wouldn’t be able to exist without each and every thread laid together just so. There is a wonderful sensuality to her life that is reflected in Jendreyko's filmmaking, a luxurious sense of time passing, each moment an inspired one when life can change forever because of a gesture, a glance, a lifting of the eyes. Geier has extraordinary eyes and a riveting presence. She constantly reminds us that there is enough beauty in the world if you can just see beyond your own circumscribed view. She offers Jendreyko, a consummate listener himself, a multitude of intelligent reflections and he takes them in in the spirit in which they're given, always gently probing, questioning, building a quiet maelstrom of emotion, never afraid to meet her challenging gaze. It's an exciting collaboration and she grows more and more beautiful before his lens. I'm hard pressed to remember the last time a woman in her 80s was represented so in film.
Still razor sharp, a fierce light emanating from laser-beam blue eyes, Geier is introduced in her home office where she continues her meticulous translation work, aided, in scenes loaded with droll humor, by collaborators who are themselves exacting and precise in everything they do, one of whom is a musician who is tasked with reading her translations to her out loud. The rhythm of language and the exact right word are held to impossible standards, argued over vociferously, he always valiantly conceding to her final decision. She notices when things are “ridiculously ugly” and she is determined that language, above all else, “works.” Punkt.
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 still bereft when recounting the 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's work as repaying her "enormous debt to Germany."
Geier: “Right from the start, it is clear to Dostoyesvsky that the most important characteristic of a human being is his need for freedom. And this freedom expresses itself in self-determination. One does what one wants to do. And our intelligence plays a fatal role here because our reason constantly offers us reasons, when we want to justify something. We can offer a reason for anything, in fact. . . . Here, Dostoyevsky is in sharp contrast to all the potentates of this world. And for him, there is no doubt: there is no end that could ever justify a wrong means.”
her son suffers a serious head injury and is confined to hospital, this sets
off memories of her ill father whom she cared for in Russia after he was
released from one of Stalin’s death camps and she drops everything to care for
him. This also unleashes an
impulse to return to Ukraine, a place she has not returned since she left as a young girl. When we
enter Kiev on the train, we become aware of how and why beauty and function
have become so vital to her existence.
The light in her eyes, the aura around her, dims a bit as she looks out
the window of the train. She tells
her granddaughter, at one point, that the Russian and German languages are
incompatible while the filmmaker slyly
illustrates this by filming the gauge change for the trains that will travel
The film interweaves the story of Geier’s life during this journey, her chosen dedicated vocation to literature, and the secrets—some very dark and painful—of this inexhaustibly hard-working and exacting woman who possesses a love of language that outshines everything else. “One cannot exhaust an excellent text, and that is probably the sign of the most superb quality.” In his exceedingly intimate portrait, Jendreyko shows us a human being living an inexhaustible life, a life that celebrates the beauty of each small moment and, more importantly, the spaces between them.