The Woman with the 5 Elephants
Directed by Vadim Jendreyko
If the title of this Swiss/German doc sounds carnival-esque, there's one image, late in the film, that'll ground you: a shot of the eponymous octogenarian, Svetlana Gaier, sitting opposite a stack of Dostoyevsky's five major works, which she has translated from her native Russian to her adoptive German. The lady, stooped with age, is nearly commensurate to the tower of tomes, but in the soft, painterly light thrown over her life by cinematographer Niels Bolbrinker, both are vivid and thriving, without foreseeable end.
Saved by her study of languages—and, we infer, her relentless will—Svetlana survived first the Communists, and then the Nazis. At twenty, faced with another round of Stalin's rule, she left her native Ukraine for an uncertain future in Germany, where she settled, studied, and became a sought-after translator and eventual matriarch, never returning home—until, of course, now.
Director Vadim Jendreyko tells Woman's story from both ends, leading to a neat Kiev-set chronological convergence, and mostly eschews archival footage. Indeed, little surplus is necessary to showcase Gaier's lively intellect and ruling contradictions. She continues to work, dictating, downing tea, and battling helpless editors, steady and spirited, even as an adult son is hospitalized after a grave injury at work. Resolute, Gaier takes to the kitchen—she learned how to cook for the dying when her battered father was released from a Party prison—but is too rational a lady to fit her life to patterns. As in onions and Dostoyevsky, she explains, it's not some center but the "cadence... that is in fact the core of the whole thing." Lucky for us that Jenderyko has translated her insight into film.
Opens July 20 at Film Forum