This weekend, I dragged a friend to see “Pop” — Russian for “priest,” with some slightly negative connotations — one of a new crop of patriotic World War II films springing up ahead of the May 9 holiday, and the 65th anniversary of the Soviet victory in the war.
The film is about an aging priest who, despite his misgivings, is recruited by the Nazis to restore Orthodoxy in the newly occupied region of Pskov, on the western fringe of modern-day Russia. The Soviets had crushed religion in the area and the Russian people, frightened by war, needed spiritual nourishment — and the Nazis could use a nice hearts-and-minds campaign. The priest and his wife move to a new village, reopen the church — which had been converted into a social hall by the Soviets — and try to help the population live under the yoke of the Nazis and the local collaborators. They try to bring food and warm clothes to the Soviet POWs being held nearby, they take in a brood of starving orphans; the priest even refuses to give a proper funeral to the local collaborators shot by Russian resistance fighters. He holds his own against the Nazis but when the Soviets retake the region, he is sent away to the Gulag for working with the Germans.
Fine. But as far as propaganda goes, this was some very confusing stuff: the Germans speaking cartoon German and laughing cartoon bierhall laughs are bad, the Soviets are bad, the White Russian who becomes a Nazi officer — a character right out of some 1930s agitprop — is bad. The collaborators are bad, too, but collaborators who have good hearts and put up quiet, ineffectual resistance when they can, are good. That leaves only the Church. Which is good. Mostly.
And let’s be frank: this was propaganda. The film was sponsored by the Orthodox Encyclopedia and made by Channel One, the government channel once owned by Boris Berezovsky. Channel One has strict ideas about what constitutes a proper film — i.e., one that it will sponsor — and thus which film can get at some Kremlin rubles. (“Pop” was sponsored by Gazprom and Renova, which is headed by the new chief of the Russian Silicon Valley Viktor Vekselberg.)
Despite the obviously high production value, the film was a bush-league morality play: it has wooden dialogue, melodramatic acting, rammstein-to-the-temple shots of dewy symbolism (someone’s sand timer left in the mud only to be crushed under a soldier’s bootheel), and screenwriting geared at the average manechaean-minded third grader.
And, best of all, it has anti-Semitism! It was so surprising to see such blatant and antediluvian anti-Semitism in a movie made in 2010 by an ostensibly civilized country that I almost enjoyed it.
The film opens with the priest immersed in paper cut-outs of the saints. His wife comes in and says Moses from the village is here to see him. Priest goes outside to see Moses, a Jew peeled off a Nazi poster: gnarled yellow teeth; a patchy, pubic beard; a wily, wall-eyed stare, and enough annoying to fill a big barrel of annoying. Moses has come to ask the priest to convince his youngest, Chava, not to convert to Christianity because no one — not the Jews, not the Christians — will marry her. The priest tells Chava she should really, really think about it. But if she thinks and decides to become a Christian after all, cool!
Half an hour later, Chava finds the priest, who has already converted her, in his new post. The Germans came in and killed her entire family, the priest tells his wife. But Chava — now Eve — has managed to escape. It’s a good thing she became a Christian!
That demented causality aside, we also have lots of references to “the little Yid” and that Eve is wily, wily, wily.
We also have a lovely scene where the priest’s wife is braiding Chava/Eve’s hair. Eve looks in the mirror and says, “Do I really look that Jewish?” Shocked, the priest’s wife begins to console her. “No, no!” she says (and I’m paraphrasing). “You look like a real, natural-born Russian!” As she’s saying this, Eve is examining her nose, which she clearly thinks is too big.
Government money they made this film with.