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Case Number 23697: Small Claims Court

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The Woman with the Five Elephants

Cinema Guild // 2009 // 98 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // April 19th, 2012

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All Rise...

Like an idiot, Judge William Lee lost his notes from underground and some money playing chess against those Russian brothers.

The Charge

The world's greatest translator of Russian literature has a secret.

The Case

Svetlana Geier owes her life to language and has devoted that life to translation. The master Russian-German translator is renowned for her recent retranslations of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's five great novels, a project that took 20 years to complete. Director Vadim Jendreyko's documentary The Woman with the Five Elephants is a quiet and elegant portrait of a woman who has found her own way to navigate the tumultuous history of the 20th century.

Svetlana was a child living in the Ukraine, when her father was imprisoned during Stalin's purges. After enduring 18 months of abuse, he was released a broken man. Svetlana cared for her father until he died the following year. The Nazis seized Kiev when Svetlana was 18 years old. At her mother's urging, Svetlana had studied French and German so she was hired as the translator for a Nazi officer. When the Germans withdrew from the Ukraine, Svetlana and her mother chose to cast their lot with the invaders, rather than face the ire of the Soviets. In Germany, she received a further education, which led to a university teaching position, and raising a large family. This film focuses on her first trip back to Kiev.

It's clear writer/director Vadim Jendreyko loves Svetlana and that's easy to understand. Constantly hunched over, she moves a little slowly but seems tireless. Working at her desk, Svetlana is completely engaged in thoughtful and measured consideration of words. Speaking to a group of students, she has the presence and authority to command a room. No one questions Svetlana's mastery of translation or her knowledge of Dostoyevsky's works, but The Woman with the Five Elephants is less interested in her professional achievements.

When her large brood gathers for a dinner, the matriarch is hard at work in the kitchen. When her son is injured in an accident, Svetlana embarks on a journey to her roots. Accompanied by her granddaughter, she travels by train to the country of her childhood seeking out her former home and old haunts. Along the way, Svetlana recounts the events that led to the decision to leave for Germany. It was an ironic twist of fate that she prospered within the Third Reich, whereas her family was unjustly persecuted under Stalinism. Remarkably, she received a scholarship from the Germans reserved for "talented foreigners." For her good fortune, Svetlana tells us she loves Germany and she is indebted to her life's calling: translation.

There is another elephant in the room that must be addressed, if I'm to be honest about the experience of watching this film. The Woman with the Five Elephants tested my patience, with its languid pacing and sleep-inducing quietness. Jendreyko takes for granted Svetlana's talent and the viewer's familiarity of Dostoyevsky. Not enough time is devoted to hearing Svetlana talk about her work or observing her working with colleagues over texts. The film is more interested in watching its subject stare at old landmarks, the camera showing much patience with these shots. Early on, I had the feeling the story of Svetlana's youth would be important to understanding her, but the film delays sharing it with us until an hour has passed. That is too long to wait for the essential meat of this story and it feels like the film was being padded out. Perhaps Svetlana is a big celebrity in the German literary scene, and her mere presence is enough to keep audiences riveted for one hour. Personally, I grew impatient for the reason behind telling this story.

The Woman with the Five Elephants doesn't have a splashy technical presentation, but it is more than adequate for this film. The lighting is beautifully soft with very natural color reproduction. Details are reasonably sharp and close-ups where the camera isn't moving look particularly good. The image suffers from compression problems that make backgrounds of solid colors look blotchy. Some scenes appear as if they were blown up from a low resolution source. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track is fine for delivering dialogue in German and Russian, though English subtitles aid those who don't speak either tongue.

In terms of bonus material, the disc includes 25 minutes of deleted scenes, the most interesting of which is a lengthy scene of Svetlana working on a translation and explaining her interpretation to a colleague. We also get a bonus Russian short film called Portrait, made in 2002 and running 28 minutes. The film is a series of static shots of peasants and farmers standing still in front of the lens. The black and white photography is striking and the views of the Russian countryside evoke another time. If I saw this as an art gallery installation, I'd be glad to sit down and enjoy some of it before moving on to the next display. Watching the static shots sit there on my television monitor, I was itching to press the fast forward button. The supplements are capped off with the film's trailer.

The Woman with the Five Elephants is exceptional for detailing the hardships Svetlana's family endured, her good fortune of surviving extraordinarily difficult times, and her tenacity to excel in her life's work. It's hard not to respect someone with such strength and the film manages to depict this woman as both humbly heroic and honestly vulnerable. Having no experience with German translations of Russian literature, I'm glad to have learned about Svetlana. I just wish the film could have gotten the job done in about half the time.

The Verdict

The court's decision is suspended until after naptime.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 60

Perp Profile

Studio: Cinema Guild
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (German, Russian)
• English
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Foreign
• Historical

Distinguishing Marks

• Deleted Scenes
• Short Film
• Trailer

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