The outsider’s perspective is generally a fresh one, especially if the outsider in question is a great artist. That certainly is the case with two excellent new documentaries that will have their U.S. theatrical premieres at Film Forum in the coming weeks. The translator Svetlana Geier and the painter Anselm Kiefer have unique, unusual viewpoints on the bloody 20th century, and in “The Woman With Five Elephants” and “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow” those viewpoints are given particularly cogent visual expression.
Taken as a pair, the films offer yet another door into the mysteries of Jewish history in those ill-fated years.
Geier, who died at 87 last November after Swiss director Vadim Jendreyko completed “Five Elephants,” was perhaps the greatest translator of Russian literature into German. Her own life story was a series of tragic collisions between the personal and the political, yet the woman who emerges in the film is remarkably grounded and humorous. Her father, a Ukrainian agronomist whose work with tobacco and sugar beets initially won him plaudits from the Stalinist regime, was arrested in a brutal purge in 1938, imprisoned and tortured for 18 months and then, in a move as mysterious as his arrest, released to his wife and daughter’s care. As Geier says at his gravesite, late in the film, “Over 27 million were murdered, but only a thousand were ever released. For that reason alone, this grave should be preserved.”
The torments didn’t end there. When the Nazis invaded Russia, coincidentally on the day Geier earned her baccalaureate in German, they murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews, including one of Geier’s best friends, Neta Tkatsch. She tells the story of their last meeting, the day before Neta and her mother were shot along with 30,000 other Jews at Babi Yar, then pauses and, for one of the only times in the film, stifles a deep emotional shudder. “It never ceases,” she murmurs. “And it has never become the past. . . . It is impossible to forget.”
The ironies pile up as the film unspools. Geier’s mother had told her that skill with languages would be her “dowry,” and her fluency in German saved her life repeatedly, culminating in the transfer of mother and daughter, still only 21, to Germany, where she received a rare “alien passport” from the government and a grant from the Humboldt Foundation. Immediately after, the official who made those possible was transferred to the Eastern Front and the Nazi Party took direct control of his ministry.
If all this seems downright Dostoevsky-ish, that’s only appropriate, since Geier’s greatest achievement, which occupied her for the last 20 years of her career, was the translation of her five elephants — Doestoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” “The Idiot,” “The Devils,” “The Brothers Karamazov” and “The Raw Youth.” On the subject of translation she is, as one might expect, eloquent, but more than that she is downright poetic and, frequently, quite funny as well, at one point comparing translation to ironing. Jendreyko finds an equally clever visual metaphor when Geier and one of her granddaughters go by train to Ukraine, her first return in over 60 years. German and Ukrainian rail lines use different gauge tracks, and we watch while the undercarriage of the train is replaced at the border; then we hear Geier launch into a succinct discussion of the problems of translating between Russian and German: “The languages are not compatible.”
Anselm Kiefer’s enormous canvases, sculptures and installations are considerably better known in the United States than Svetlana Geier’s translations. Born in Germany a month before the end of the Second World War, he has been exploring images redolent of, and frequently inspired by, the poetry of Paul Celan, stark works of art that evoke the ashes of the Shoah, haunted by echoes of Lurianic kabbalah, of which he speaks elegantly during “Over Your Cities.” In 1993, Kiefer left Germany and settled in the French town of Barjac, where he bought an abandoned silk factory and its considerable grounds. Since then he has transformed the place into a huge, complex art space housing his gigantic works. But more than that Barjac is itself an environmental art piece, an intricate collection of tunnels, underground passages, corridors and bunkers, eerily echoing the half-remembered images of the camps and the Reichsbunker, and the poetic images of shattered and buried cities of the prophetic writings.
Sophie Fiennes (sister of Ralph and Joseph, who clearly has a very different artistic agenda) reveals this quite frankly astonishing site in a series of hypnotically rigorous camera movements through these spaces, calling on viewers to drink in the range of textures and materials, forms and spaces and, most tellingly, Kiefer’s subdued palette of grays and browns. These sections, brilliantly scored by sound designer Ranko Paukovic using the music of Gyorgy Ligeti and Jorg Widmann, are sharply contrasted by equally absorbing footage of Kiefer and his team of artisans crafting the exhibits that fill the many buildings on the location. The film also features a long, fascinating interview with Kiefer by a visiting German journalist in which he invokes the broken vessels of the Creation (via Luria) and speaks affectionately of kabbalistic numerology: “they count the letters of the words, they lose their original meaning, and it becomes completely religious.”
Above all else, though, “Over Your Cities” is a visually lush experience that must be seen on a big screen, with a big sound system and none of the distractions of a living room and DVD player. I doubt if there will be a more dazzling and beautiful-looking film released this year. One imagines that Svetlana Geier would have understood what Kiefer is up to and approved.
“The Woman with Five Elephants,” written and directed by Vadim Jendryko, will play at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.) July 20-26. “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow,” directed by Sophie Fiennes, will play at Film Forum Aug. 10-23. For information, call (212) 727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.org.