4/9/18, 9:30 pm: As I’m writing this, it’s been a few years since I’ve beheld the 1920s Soviet sci-fi extravaganza Aelita: Queen of Mars. My memories of it are somewhat murky, because truth be told, I fell asleep halfway through it. But! It’s always good to give half-watched films a second chance, and since I have a bit more knowledge of Soviet cinema under my belt right now methinks I shall sit down and behold it once more.
4/10/18, 8:15 am: Darn it, I fell asleep again!
Aelita is somewhat familiar to silent film fans, but mention it to the fabled “regular folks” and you’ll get a “Huh”? It was an ambitious film once meant to rival the masterworks of Germany and the U.S., and while it was popular in the Soviet Union it didn’t seem to make a big splash anywhere else (at least not in the US, where it wasn’t released until 1929). Today, despite nicely-scored restorations being available and occasional photos being shared on social media, it can’t quite climb out of obscurity.
But perhaps that’s understandable. If you google images of Aelita: Queen of Mars, what you’ll get is this:
However, if you actually watch Aelita: Queen of Mars, most of what you’ll see is this:
Which is all well and good, but you’d be forgiven for assuming these are two separate films. Aelita is basically 25% Constructivist avant-garde and 75% meandering Tolstoy novel. As a matter of fact, the film really was based on a Tolstoy novel–a novella by Aleksey N. Tolstoy, that is, not Leo. And it had less to do with space travel and Martians than the glorious goals of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Aelita was filmed by Moscow studio Mezhrabpom-Rus, which at the time was part of the Berlin-based Workers International Relief, founded to help victims of the terrible 1921-23 Russian famine. (Lenin had called for this kind of group largely to compete with the American Relief Administration, which had been sending food to the starving Russians. Err, Lenin interpreted this as trying to embarrass the Bolshevist government.) The studio was generally expected to include propaganda in their work, and in 1923 they decided to film Tolstoy’s novella, revising the plot considerably in favor of depicting Russian life post the 1917-1922 Civil War. So the Martians in this movie are no longer descendants of ancient Atlanteans (which is a pretty darn interesting movie idea right there) and much of the running time is occupied with our Earthy main characters, mainly the daydreaming engineer Los (Nikolai Tsereteli), his wife Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi), and playboy Ehrlich (Pavel Pol).
Tortured-poet-faced Los’s domestic struggles drive much of the film. He suspects charming Natasha is a little too friendly with the cocky Erlich, a corrupt government worker intent on selling stolen sugar on the black market (have I mentioned this film is from Soviet Russia?). There are also several side plots involving minor characters like Kratsov, who fancies himself a detective and basically provides comic relief.
They’re all decent actors, and the background of crowded Moscow offers intriguing glimpses into Russian society, but let’s be honest: we’re here to see a mid-1920s idea of a Martian civilization. Interestingly enough, the film opens with scenes that call to mind Close Encounters of the Third Kind: a mysterious telegraph message is picked up by receivers around the world, “Anta Odeli Uta.” Los hears it and fantasizes about it being a message from an advanced society on Mars, a planet that obsesses him. He periodically daydreams about these fantastical Martians, who he envisions living in fabulous Constructivist settings.
Yet thanks to the power of Bolshevik propaganda, this world isn’t idealized. Los imagines Mars being ruled by the complexly-garbed king Tuskub and his queen, Aelita. Their worker class is so downtrodden that when they’re done being overworked they’re frozen and put into storage (I think we get the message). Los’s feverish dreams of Mars grow more and more vivid until one day, he decides to blast off to the red planet in his self-designed rocketship (he’s quite the engineer). This doesn’t happen until the last quarter of the film, I must hasten to add.
Here’s where the propaganda really rears its head, to the point where you might chuckle. Los disrupts life in this futurist society forever with a kiss (well, basically) and then encourages the worker class to rebel against the evil capitalists–err, Martian aristocrats. As he preaches to the masses, he tells them this is all just like the October 1917 revolution! And there’s a brief montage of chains being broken and a brawny worker forging a sickle, which he then lays on a table with his hammer proudly on top. Get it? Get it?!
Los then declares, “Follow our example, comrades. Form one working family of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics of Mars.” You can’t make this stuff up.
The rebellion itself, with shots of angry mobs fighting in the great halls of the nobility, calls to mind similar scenes in Metropolis–although the film ultimately has one of those endings. When you watch it, you’ll know what I mean.
I probably don’t have to mention that the costumes and sets end up stealing the show, easily competing with L’Inhumaine or the several eye-popping German Expressionist films for “most modern and daring.” The sets were the creation of Isaac Rabinovich and Victor Simov, and the costumes were designed by Constructivist artist Aleksandra Ekster. The Martian aristocrats’ headdresses, bare arms and robe-like clothing seem to mimic the costumes so often used in epic films like Intolerance, with added “futuristic” twists like plastic sheeting and geometric headpieces. They’re stunningly strange.
Aelita was given a huge marketing campaign in the Soviet Union, to the point where leaflets were even being dropped from planes. But it eventually fell out of favor with the Soviet government, and if you ponder the ending you might discern why. It didn’t help that its director, Jakov Protazanov, had left Russia during the revolution–as had Aelita novel writer Aleksey Tolstoy. This cast suspicion on just how loyal they really were to that ever-paranoid government, and whether their return to Russia was based more on opportunism.
Aelita: Queen of Mars probably will never be called a forgotten masterpiece, especially because of its insistence on meandering through “normal life” subplots. (Hopefully you’ll have more success staying awake through them than I did.) But I’d recommend seeing it, at least once. With its unusual conjunction of early 20th century Russian melodrama–which I wouldn’t have minded seeing just by itself–and operatic futurist design, it gives its own confident definition of the phrase: “not something you see every day.”
This post was written especially for the Outer Space on Film Blogathon, hosted by the appropriately-named Moon in Gemini. 😉 There are a lot of great, insightful posts this weekend so be sure to check them out! And I want to extend a hearty welcome to all new readers. Feel free to take a look around, and maybe leave a comment or two–I love comments like Charlie Chaplin loved bowler hats.