Issue 30 (2010)

Vladimir Khotinenko: The Priest (Pop, 2009)

reviewed by Anthony Anemone © 2010

popVladimir Khotinenko’s new film, The Priest, purports to lift the veil on a little-known episode from the German occupation of Soviet territory during the Second World War. Between 1941 and 1944, a small group of priests was dispatched by the Orthodox Metropolitan of Latvia on a mission to the Pskov region, then occupied by the Wehrmacht, to reopen churches closed by the Soviets. Known as the Pskov Orthodox (sometimes “Spiritual”) Mission, the episode was written into Soviet history as a simple case of the Orthodox Church’s treasonous collaboration with the Nazis. In recent years, however, the resurgent Russian Orthodox church has put forth a competing version of the episode, one in which the priests of the Mission are depicted as saintly men of God and true Russian patriots. Despite the appearance of supporting the Nazi occupation, the priests of the Pskov Orthodox Mission administered to the spiritual needs of the Russian orthodox population in a time of national crisis, while actually supporting Soviet prisoners of war, the anti-Nazi partisan forces and the larger goal of Russian independence from both the German and Soviet empires. In just the last few years, the church has put forth its revisionist view of the Pskov Mission in documentary films, historical studies, memoirs, novels, and web sites.[1] Khotinenko’s Priest, the first high-profile feature film to tell the story of the Pskov Mission, represents the latest stage of the Orthodox church’s attempt to rewrite the history of its collaboration with the Germans during WWII. Reactions to the film in the press and the internet range from wholehearted approval (e.g., finally, the truth can be told) to wholesale rejection and outrage (e.g., a shameless attempt to whitewash Vlasovites and traitors).

popThe story of the making of The Priest is complex. The late Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Aleksey II, whose father served as a priest in occupied Estonia during the war, originally commissioned a novel about the Pskov Mission from the orthodox writer Alexander Segen’,[2] although he apparently was thinking of a film version of the story from the very beginning. Based on the memoirs of a participant in the Mission, Father Aleksei Ionov, the novel is a poorly written and tendentious apology for the Orthodox priests who served in occupied territory.[3] The fictionalized main character of the novel and film, Father Aleksandr Ionin (Sergei Makovetskii), is a paragon of all the Orthodox virtues: wise, kind, generous, resourceful, completely committed to his Orthodox flock, and a Russian patriot: his wife (Nina Usatova) is the epitome of a devout but down to earth peasant woman. That she also speaks fluent German helps move the plot forward on several occasions. No friends to either Nazis or Soviets, their mission is to spread God’s word among the Russian peasants who have suffered from decades of the Bolsheviks’ anti-religious campaigns. The language of the novel and film is a naïve combination of colloquial Russian and Church Slavonicisms, while the characters are mostly one-dimensional cardboard imitations of real people: the children are innocent, the priest high-minded and brilliant, the collaborationist Polizei brutal thugs, the reds are fanatics. Yet when push comes to shove, all it takes is a few words by Father Ionin to make Polizei villains join the partisans, and to transform a fanatical Soviet partisan into an exemplary Christian soldier.

popIn addition to the A-list director and actors, the status of The Priest is hinted from the official announcement that accompanied the film’s release: “made with the blessing of the deceased Patriarch of Moscow Aleksi II, under the patronage of President Dmitrii Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, with financial support from the Ministry of Culture of Russia, OAO Gazprom, Company “Renova Media” and the Federal Space Agency.” The production company responsible for the film is listed as “Orthodox Encyclopedia.” Finally, the film’s Moscow premiere occurred in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior during the Easter holiday.[4] In other words, the film is a symptom not only of the powerful new role of the Orthodox church in today’s Russia, but of the increasingly powerful links between government, business, and the church in today’s Russia.

popCombining ideal visions of perfect Orthodox piety with numerous images from “high cinematic art,” the film conveys a highly schizophrenic style, mirroring, perhaps, the dual contributions of the screenwriters, the orthodox writer, Segen’, and the master of cinematic form, Khotinenko. For example, while Khotinenko is responsible for the beautiful helicopter landscape shots, the dramatic slow-motion and still photography, and the black and white quasi-newsreel photography, the characterizations of the village priest and his parishioners, the scenes from the private life of the parishioners, the religious parables, the explanations of church calendars, and the shamelessly inspirational moments all come straight from Segen’s eponymous novel.

popThe key to the film’s (and novel’s) ideological meaning is Aleksandr Nevskii, the favorite saint of the hero of The Priest and the hero of Eisenstein’s great anti-German movie of 1938. As the patron saint of patriotism and Orthodoxy, Nevsky summarizes and suggests one way of solving the historical paradox that stands at the heart of the Pskov Spiritual Mission. The problem, brutally stated, concerns the admissibility for Russian patriots of collaborating with the Nazis in order to reintroduce Christianity to those parts of the land of the Soviets occupied by the Wehrmacht. As the priest says at one point, neither the Germans, nor the Bolsheviks are eternal: only Christ is eternal. Hence, the ultimate goal of serving Christ can never be a mistake. Depending on one’s view of the meaning of religion, one can imagine very different responses to these complicated issues. Still, a certain amount of historical good faith is necessary for this discussion. The problem is that a comparison of the film’s prototype with the fictionalized hero undercuts the viewer’s confidence in the film’s good faith. For while the real life prototype of the film’s hero (and the author of the memoirs upon which the novel and film rely) left Russia with the Germans towards the end of the war, never to return to Russia, the hero of the novel and film (“I didn’t run away from the Nazis. I won’t run away from our own people.”) bravely met his fate at the hands of the victorious Soviets. Once viewers learn that the decades spent by the film’s saintly hero in Stalinist gulags were invented, their confidence in the film’s reliability will be minimized, if not completely eliminated. Although there is no question about the importance of the historical and ethical issues involved, Khotinenko’s partisan film fails to initiate a serious dialog about revisiting this fascinating episode in recent Russian history.

The Priest is a disappointment, at least to those viewers interested in the film itself, rather than in its highly tendentious image of the historical past. Despite excellent acting and a capable film crew, the story, situations and characters are clichéd and simplistic, more suited to a television mini-series than the cinema. Although the film’s view of the righteousness of the overall mission is crystal clear, not all viewers will agree that the director that this particular historical episode is as simple or as clear as presented.

Anthony Anemone
The New School University

Comment on this review via the LJ Forum


1] For more information about the Mission, click here or here.

2] Aleksandr Segen’, Pop (Moscow, Veche 2010).

3] More information about Father Aleksei Ionov. His memoirs of the Pskov Spiritual Mission were published in the journal Po stopan Khrista (Berkeley, CA) in 1954.

4] Much interesting information about the film’s creators can be found at the official web-site.

The Priest, Russia, 2009
Color, 130 minutes.
Director: Vladimir Khotinenko
Screenplay: Aleksandr Segen’ and Vladimir Khotinenko
Producers: Sergei Kravets, Natal’ia Gostiushina, Vera Malysheva
Cinematography: Il’ia Demin
Cast: Sergei Makovetskii, Nina Usatova, Liza Arzamasova, Kirill Pletnev, Anatoli Lobotskii
Original music: Aleksei Rybnikov
Production: Orthodox Encyclopedia

Vladimir Khotinenko: The Priest (Pop, 2009)

reviewed by Anthony Anemone © 2010

Updated: 01 Oct 10