Aelita: Queen of Mars
Russia (1924) Dir. Yakov Protazanov
In post war Russia, an idealistic engineer named Los (Nikolai Tsereteli) is one of many radio engineers around the world trying to decipher a bizarre coded message that is transmitted from an unknown location. Being the fantasist that he is, Los believes the message came from Mars and begins plans to build space craft to take him there. Meanwhile on the Red Planet, Aelita (Yuliya Solntseva) daughter of Martian ruler Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert) watches the Earth through a newly built powerful telescope, espying Los and immediately falling for him hoping she could meet him one day.
Based on the novel by Alexei Tolstoy, Aelita is not only the first full length Soviet film about space travel but widely regarded as a major influence on future sci-fi works, most notably the “Cliffhanger” serials of the 30’s and 40’s such as the iconic Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and the like. However, the bulk of this film is a parable concerning the political and social changes occurring within Russia at the time.
Set during the New Economic Policy (NEP) period of 1921-23 in which Lenin allowed for small scale capitalist endeavours to help boost the Soviet economy, Tolstoy’s story seems to yearn for a return to the days of Communism but without necessarily being pro-revolution despite this being central to the film’s final act. Even though it is rife with many allusions, metaphors and the parallel world of Mars being as different as it is the same, the propaganda is thankfully not as heavy handed as it could have been.
The story follows many complex tangents. Los is married to Natasha (Vera Kuindzhi), a refugee check point worker, who is feeling neglected by her husband’s commitment to his work and Martian fantasies. An opportunistic crook Viktor Ehrlich (Pavel Pol) charms his way into Natasha’s life while plotting with his wife Yelena (N. Tretyakova) to rob Los’s colleague Spiridonov (Nikolai Tsereteli in disguise), under the inept observance of wannabe detective Kravtsov (Igor Ilyinsky).
All this takes place while Los is away on sixth month job on a dam construction but upon his return and in a fit of jealousy, Los shoots Natasha, then flees, disguising himself as Spiridonov (which has emigrated to the West) to build his spacecraft and take that trip to Mars.
Meanwhile on said planet, Aelita is prohibited from using the telescope by Tuskub who objects to his daughter’s obsession with Los forcing her to sneak a few peeks behind daddy’s back, getting herself in trouble. Tuskub rules over a totalitarian regime where workers are oppressed and when the work starts to dwindle, the ones who aren’t used are frozen until needed.
Tuskub seems clearly aware of how things are on Earth and decides to keep the telescope a secret, explaining his orders to have Los’s space craft shot down before it arrives on Mars. His concerns are justified when Los and fellow passenger Gusev (Nikolai Batalov), a red Army soldier, riles up the oppressive workers and incites a revolution.
There’s a twist that follows this uprising that I won’t spoil but it puts a lot of the ideas and Tolstoy’s and director Yakov Protazanov’s feelings of his country’s then and future direction into some sort of perspective. For anyone not looking to be hit over the head with political rhetoric, it is arguably too subtle for anyone without a passing knowledge of Russian history to have any negative impact upon viewing this ambitious tale.
The true appeal, definitely for sci-fi buffs will be the scene set on Mars. As is often the case, what follows an influence will supersede the original and Aelita falls into that category. Its closest rivals from this time period in terms of importance, scale and influence would be two of Fritz Lang’s classics the mighty Metropolis and fiction-becoming-fact opus Frau Im Mond, while its aesthetic influence is still felt to this day.
The costumes, equipment and set pieces might seem risible to some mindsets, but one needs to bear in mind that costume and set designers Alexandra Exter and Isaak Rabinovich did not have a wealth of reference points to draw on for their creations; thus the basic template for every futuristic setting for the next twenty years or so can be found right here.
From the elaborate headgear and revealing dresses to stifling masks and cumbersome helmets, from angular and minimalist décor to hi tech equipment made of clear plastic, it is all here ready and waiting to be improved on, or ripped off by future generations. To that end, the idea of a fantasy world which is technologically more advanced than ours is successfully conveyed and even almost 90 years on, still has a striking charm to it.
Being billed as a sci-fi film might seem a little misleading since Aelita is rich in political allegory but the two worlds are successfully combined to create a unique slice of silent cinema history. The danger of the lack of space action deterring some viewers is understandable, but for genuine film buffs this shouldn’t be an issue. Perhaps overlooked in the wake of its Hollywood successors and imitators, Aelita at least deserves wider recognition for its innovation and influence on the sci-fi genre.