On the 99-degree day today, when, defeated by the heat, we had thrown aside any sightseeing plans in New York (and when our boys only set foot out of our friends' air-conditioned apartment in Brooklyn long enough to go down the street to get Italian ices), Laura and I snuck out to catch a matinee at the Film Forum in the West Village, a documentary I hadn't heard about before I saw it on their schedule, The Woman with the 5 Elephants.
You might not think that a documentary on literary translation would be moving and thrilling (well, I actually would--that's why we went to the movie in the first place), but this one is. Svetlana Geier was (she died last fall, after the completion of the film) a longtime teacher and a leading translator from the Russian into German who, late in her life, gathered a bit of fame for her series of translations of the great novels of Dostoyevsky (the "5 Elephants" of the title). Her life at age 85 and her approach to her craft are interesting enough as a subject, but her past, with a dramatic path through the wars and tyrants of the 20th century that so few Central Europeans avoided, makes her even more so. She was raised in Ukraine, the daughter of a successful farmer destroyed by Stalin's purges. The Nazi invasion and retreat, coupled with her study of German, then became the tragically fortuitous route by which she ended up a scholar and professor in Germany after the war.
That drama, which is brought into the present in the film by a return visit she makes to Kiev--her first since the war--is substantial and moving (and ambivalent, as she found her route to freedom through the same occupiers who massacred tens of thousands of Jews and others, her friends among them). But I was at least equally moved by the contemporary portrait of her daily life, which vividly echoed the wonderful documentary Bill Cunningham New York.
I do often think by comparing, and throughout this picture I was thinking of the other. On one hand, they are both portraits of elderly craftspeople who carry with them, both in their everyday lives and in their work, a purity of spirit and purpose, living by ideals that seem out of place in our time, but may have been out of place in any time. They hold themselves to standards far beyond what anyone else might. (Geier's fierce attention to the simplest of tasks has certainly made me rethink my lifelong aversion to ironing.) And their crafts are each secondary ones, depending on another's art: Cunningham's photography on the personal fashion he hungrily records and Geier's translations on what she calls the "inexhaustible" texts of a master like Dostoyevsky. Perhaps that shared modesty toward what they record and translate is related to the personal discipline that's so remarkable in each.
But their working methods, and their lives, are not entirely similar. Cunningham is a classic loner (whose past remains largely untold, not least by himself), and much of the tension of his story comes from the gap between his passionate and social professional life and his mysteriously ascetic personal life. Geier, on the other hand, is--and I don't mean to make a pun about her wartime experiences--a collaborator. She is surrounded by family, cooking with children and grandchildren and traveling with a granddaughter who clearly adores her. Even her translating work is not done alone. She dictates her translations, sentence by sentence, to a trusted friend who often helps her refine the text as she speaks. And then she listens as another friend, a gruff but "reliable" musician, reads her text back to her and debates the fine points of music and meaning therein.
The most thrilling and hilarious scene in the film is between these latter two, in a short discussion of a few sentences that approaches the wordless battle-of-wills genius of Judy Holliday's gin game (start at 4:00) with Broderick Crawford in Born Yesterday (which really deserves a spot on a Firmament list if I can concoct a category for it). You can see a snippet of that scene ("I capitulate") in the trailer for the movie, followed by a glimpse of one of the other most thrilling elements of the film, the laughing but piercing glance of her giant eyes, so often hidden by the exhaustion and gnarled posture of age.
I've been recommending Bill Cunningham New York to anyone and everyone the past couple of months, and I'll do the same for The Woman with the 5 Elephants, if it's fortunate to get and keep the kind of exposure that BCNY has. (I also enjoyed watching a short Q&A with the director, Vadim Jendreyko, from a festival appearance in San Francisco last fall, which adds to his portrait of this singular woman.)