The Woman with the Five Elephants
Music Box Films
The Woman with the Five Elephants is not, of course, a circus picture. The title would be too square. The five elephants are the five major works of Dostoevsky. (Listing the titles would be too obvious or perhaps too arguable.) The woman is Svetlana Geier (d. 2010), acknowledged by many German readers as the premier translator of Russian into German.
Readers of English may immediately be reminded of Constance Garnett, the late Victorian who swept a pantheon of Russian literature into English and enlightened the Anglophone world. But severe differences between these two outstanding women exist. Garnett had a succulent life. One observer said that he sat once in her garden while she sat under a tree with a Russian text and a sheaf of paper. The sheets of translation fell to the ground in a steady tempo, not fast but steady. One can’t imagine any sort of steady tempo with Geier. But this is only one of the minor differences.
Geier’s life, unlike Garnett’s, was sinuously and terribly entwined with her work. She was Ukrainian and went through the Nazi occupation wretchedly. Her father, a Jew, was shot. She herself was not at Babi Yar, but she saw the files marching there, and she heard the shots. Of course she never stopped hearing them.
Her subsequent life became an almost staggering national reversal. She became an expert in German literature and was then employed for her knowledge of both languages. (This is not unique in recent history. Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a leading German literary critic, is a Polish-born Jew who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto.) But a much greater surprise than the historical twist in this film, made by Vadim Jendreyko, is the woman whom Geier became. Instead of a person crammed with tensions, she is now an elfin little old lady—very much lunches-for-kids-and-grandkids—who found her balance and her being in the world between languages.
Many of the things she says are versions of things that other troubled (always troubled) translators have said: there is a silence in the world that only literature can understand; or the real quest of the translator is for a third language into which she came from Russian and left through German. This pleasantly mystical concept glimmers teasingly when the translation is better than the original or than most of the author’s previous work.
The point of this exceptional documentary is not to tango yet again on the difficulties of translation, but to show how Geier’s immersion changed her brain cells. Once, when she is ironing a piece of lace, she says she follows the strands as if she were following and urging modes in a translation. Her kitchen becomes the residence of poesy.
A NOTE ON ANOTHER mission of poetry. One of its further functions might be said to be the quest for the ephemeral that is hidden within the actual. A line of verse states, however fancily, some facts. But the poem is hidden within. A primary example is “Dover Beach.” On the surface, it’s night at the seashore. For the poet, the very night itself trembles with destiny.
Lately there have been numerous films, by Americans and others, that carried on this bifocalism. A group of young people are mostly slacking about, and from their slacking spirituality is meant to emerge. No one has been better at this maneuver than Miranda July, whose directing and acting in Me and You and Everyone We Know was light-fingered. Now, with The Future, she continues in the same vein. The characters are not the subject—a wearying hipster couple, an older man, a trick rabbit. Rabbit excepted, it is what these people don’t say and do that becomes a quintessence of contemporary honest bewilderments. To see July’s stubbly, refined work is to see where her film began—not in what we see and hear. She is attuned to what people don’t always mention, even to themselves. She is the prime film-maker in this school of implications.
NOW TO A TIME when the mysteries glittered. It is notable that, among all the centuries of European culture, one has always been especially liked. Yes, the Greek classic years are awesome: they make us feel noble yet unworthy. And the nineteenth century is the fullest possible embodiment of bourgeois satisfaction: what person of limited conscience couldn’t have had a comfy time there? But the eighteenth century generally seems to loom above all the rest. In its every aspect—its houses, its clothes, its customs, its elegance—it seems the one century that was completely designed: by a master who wanted his century to be not only beautiful but proud.
There has been no shortage of good eighteenth-century films. But I have never seen one that captured me more completely in its being—in texture and repletion—than Mozart’s Sister, written and directed by René Féret. All of us have read ourselves happy with biographies of Mozart, entranced especially by the early years of travel. Féret’s film virtually begins in the Mozart carriage, with father, mother, fourteen-year-old Nannerl, and eleven-year-old Wolfgang. The simplest film purpose is at once reached: we are there. This only becomes more so when, in a snowstorm somewhere in France, an axle cracks. A layover for repairs, during which the family is put up at an abbey, opens up two more folds of the century’s life.
Sequestered at this abbey are three of the French king’s daughters, and one of them, called Louise, falls instantly in eighteenth-century sororal love with Nannerl. She, we know, needs it: we have seen that she is not her father’s pet or prodigy. She needs affection, pure affection.
This encounter leads to a major invention of Féret’s, perfectly endorsing his century’s temper. Louise has a royal lover, or wishes she had, and Nannerl becomes her means of sending the lover a letter. A plot then begins at which Wycherley and Beaumarchais would have winked, a congeries of extravagances that include transvestism and whelming luxury. Matters do not end with satisfactions for all, except for us, who can watch these flummeries of amour as verities of the time in which they take place.
To attend a historical picture these days is to be set for the splendid. No one is going to attempt such a film without dazzle in mind. Féret had more than that in mind—in fact, some of the film was actually shot in Versailles. I’ve rarely had such a sensation of brushing through different cloths. Decorations such as vases, lamps, stands, made me feel rich simply by passing them by.
The Mozart characters are vivid. Léopold, the father, has long been a deep study and continues to be difficult. He loves his wife and daughter, but he feels personally clever to have had this son. Mother tries always to be fair. Wolfgang is usually shown as busy at music or else snoozing. On screen he is no bright light. Nannerl apparently had some talent, if now she is pretty well unknown for it. When her “affair” with the royal lover is discovered, Léopold is furious and bids her burn her scores. She obeys.
This is more or less where the story ends, as Nannerl stands once more: a glimpse of a relative of prominence, a member of a group photo of the past. Who knows how many like her there have been? Virginia Woolf once raised the subject of Shakespeare’s sister, blaming paternal prejudice for the lack of a sister genius. Possible; but it isn’t only machismo. There was a gifted composer named Michael Haydn, whose bad luck it was to have a brother named Joseph.
Féret’s screenplay does its job, to give us a sadness of someone otherwise known as just one more person in a famous family. His chief accomplishment other than regality is to make us realize how slim our knowledge is of things we think we know.
The cinematographer was Benjamín Echazarreta, who clearly knows as much about painting as about the camera. Veronica Fruhbrodt, the set designer, and Dominique Louis, who did the costumes, made me feel as if I were in the clothes. I’ve never had so keen a sense of what it must have been like to wear one of those wigs.
Féret took his chances in several ways by casting his daughter Marie as Nannerl. She cannot be dull, yet obviously she is not sparkling, or Léopold wouldn’t make sense. Throughout the picture, Marie blossoms just enough to make perfect the film’s title and being.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the September 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.