(8/10) In a nutshell: This highly visually influential 1924 sci-fi classic from the Soviet Union is not at all the socialist propaganda it is sometimes lambasted as, but rather a daringly critical and multi-layered satire on the concept of the popular revolution. Unfortunately its multiple Earth-bound social allegories also make it surprisingly talky for a silent film, resulting in occasionally dull stretches.
Aelita: Queen of Mars. 1924, The Soviet Union/Russia. Directed by: Yakov Protazanov. Written by: Alexei Fayko, Fyodor Ostep, Yakov Protazanov. Based on the book by Alexei Tolstoy. Starring: Nikolai Tsereteli, Nikolai Batalov, Yuliya Solntseva, Valentina Kuindzhi. Cinematography: Emil Schünemann, Yuri Zhelyabuszhky. Set design: Viktor Simov. Costume design: Alexandra Exter. Produced for Mezhradom-Rus. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 6.5
Aelita: Queen of Mars, has been just as highly praised as it has often been misunderstood, primarily by western critics. There are few, though, who contest its visual influence on the genre of science fiction. It is also the first Russian/Soviet science fiction film, closely rivalled by Lev Kuleshov’s The Death Ray (Luch Smerti) that was made the year after. The silent film was released in 1924, and was a box office hit, but a critical failure. It remains director Yakov Protazanov’s best remembered film. The film is sometimes dismissed by western (amateur) critics as a blatant example of communist propaganda, but this is not really the case, neither did the Soviet critics and politicians at the time see it as such. But we will get into that later.
Now I will pick the plot apart – it is very complicated, so I’ll have to use pretty broad sweeps, but it’ll still be a rather lengthy plot resumé, please hold on.
On one level, what we are dealing with here is a tale of two worlds that ultimately collide. The first world is the young Soviet Union – the film is for the most part set in Moscow. Keep in mind that the bolshevik revolution happened in 1917, based on the promise of a better life for the country’s impoverished underclass. Through the eyes of radio engineer Los we see life progress with the help of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) from the chaos of before 1921 (when NEP was introduced) to 1924, when the film was released, and when most of the action takes place. In 1924, we see, life is already a lot better – food and supplies are readily available, there are no more overcrowded trains and a degree of order, justice and happiness has been brought forth with the help of the communist system.
The other world is Mars. Mars is ruled by a despotic king called Tuskub and a rich and ruthless elite who live in luxury. The working class consists of slaves who are forced to wear boxes on their heads and are housed in dungeons underground. The king one day decides to put one third of all the workers in the freezer to save resources and have spare labour for later. Love and compassion are unknown phenomena on Mars. The king’s head scientist has created a device that lets him see life on other planets, although it primarily tends to show nothing but Earth in general, and Moscow in particular. The king orders the invention to be kept a strict secret, so that no-one else might be able to see the communist paradise created on Earth and get funny ideas about love, happiness and a workers’ revolution. But Tuskub has a curious and rebellious daughter called Aelita (which would strictly speaking make her a princess and not a queen of Mars …) who likes to do forbidden things along with her favourite maidservant Ihoshka. She catches wind of the fabulous machine and convinces the inventor to let her use it without Tuskub’s knowledge. Thus she gets enthralled by the planet Earth, and in particular love – which leads to her trying out the strange Earth practice of kissing on the flabbergasted scientist.
Eventually the two worlds collide when Los builds a space ship, and along with two other men set off two Mars, where they lead the slaves in a socialist revolt against the ruling class, spreading the bolshevik revolution not only to foreign countries, but even to other planets.
This sounds like pretty much basic bolshevik propaganda, and this is what the Soviet film council ordered – and it is as such that a lot of western critics have viewed it. But this is only half of the story.
On another level the story goes like this: Los the radio engineer is one of many engineers around the world that recieve a strange radio message carrying the words Anta Odeli Uta (A-eli-ta). One of his co-workers jokes that it might be from Mars. This fires up the imagination of Los, who is bored of his dull job and has problems at home, as he suspects that a lodger, a sleazy NEP-officer, is having an affair with his wife. He gets absorbed in a project to build a space ship so he can travel to Mars to find out if it indeed is the source of the signal. To escape his unhappiness he daydreams about Mars and the beautiful Aelita, who is looking down at him from her viewing machine. After finally completing his space ship, he sets out on the voyage with another man, Gusev – a revolutionary hero and social organiser, who is equally bored and wants to find a new adventure now that the revolution is over and done with. Along tags an amateur detective, Kravtsov, basically a comic sidekick, who gets in trouble by trying to do everything by the KGB code book.
On Mars Los isn’t really that interested in the fate of the slaves, but rather in taking Aelita to bed. Neither is the KGB-wannabe Kravtsov really interested in a revolution. His interest lies in arresting Los for a crime he didn’t commit. To achieve this goal, he has no problem with sidling with the evil elitist regime – the means to and end is all that matters for a good communist detective. Gusev is in fact the one who leads the workers in revolt. Surprisingly Aelita agrees to a revolution, and as Queen of Mars she becomes the leader and figurehead of the uprising, until she betrays the cause and tries to install herself as the supreme ruler of Mars. This breaks Los’ spell, and ultimately he kills her by pushing her over a ledge. Horrified, he suddenly wakes up and finds that he is standing by a train station in Moscow. On a billboard he sees the words Anta Odeli Uta – an advertisement for car tires. It had all really been a dream, and he had never been to Mars, or even received a strange message.
Now this no longer feels like the heavy-handed communist propaganda suggested by some critics. The first interpretation is that since this was all a dream, then the revolution never happened on Mars, and thus the whole film is simply escapist fantasy. Now, the Soviet art council did not like escapist fantasies, but glorious stories about the Soviet revolution.
The second interpretation is that this is not at all about Mars, but a parable about the Soviet revolution. It seems to say that the glorious Soviet revolution never really happened, but was all a dream, and the harsh realities of poverty still exists. Even worse, one could interpret the queen Aelita as a parable for Lenin and Stalin – a revolutionary leader that sets herself up as just another despot, thus again making the revolution redundant – a dream in the minds of socialist theorists like Karl Marx.
But there is also a third level to this, that partly is a compliment to the second. Remember how I wrote earlier that the two revolutionary explorers wanted to escape the mundane lives they lead? Some have suggested that this is really what’s going on in this film. Both Gusev and Los have wives who are deeply involved in the boring, mundane activities of rebuilding Moscow after the revolution. In fact, a large part of the film is taken up by these trifles – Gusev’s wife Masha works as a nurse, and Los’ wife Natasha at a distribution center. Especially Natasha is described as a homely, wholesome woman who deeply enjoys housework – we get several scenes of her baking, cooking, doing dishes etc. Los, on the other hand, is utterly bored by all this community organising, poster-painting, putting on socialist shows in the community hall, etc. He is jealous of his wife spending so much time with the shifty NEP-officer. He is shown stealing from he distribution center – or is this just the imagination of the daydreamer Los? He needs to escape from an ordinary life he can’t handle, and instead dreams up Mars and Aelita – a woman who never does any kind of housework and is solely interested in adventure and passion. Gusev is also bored by the tedious work of rebuilding Russia. He wants to be back fighting in the revolution, and his motivation for going to Mars is pure adventure.
What does this ultimately say about the revolution and the revolutionaries? None of them seem to be going on the adventure for any ideological reasons, but rather to fulfil juvenile dreams of adventure and escapism. This is a very harsh critique of the glorified communist revolution, that director Yakov Protazanov is supposed to salute. Rather, what this film seems to glorify is the slow, steady co-operation and mundane work to improve the country. As we see in the beginning of the film, the revolution itself didn’t bring any better circumstances to the people. It was the NEP-politics and above all the hard work of people like Masha and Natasha that brought relief from poverty and suffering. And although Protazanov gives credit to the NEP-policy, he also paints a rather harsh picture of the NEP-officers, prone to bend the system for their own benefit. While Protazanov does in a way paint a positive picture of the communist system – it does indeed help the lower class to improve their lives – it actually seems to deliver some very strong critique against the official propaganda of the international communist revolution, and against the Russian communist revolution as well. In a sense, as reviewer Andrew Horton puts it, in Protazanov’s mind its is evolution, rather than revolution, that is the answer to society’s problems.
Not quite the communist propaganda it might seem like on the surface, and the Russian censors took clear notice of this, as the film was buried and hardly ever shown in later years.
There are even more subplots and a lot of subtleties – dismissed sometimes as ”soap opera” by some critics. On one level this is certainly the case, and it is easy to get a bit bored by all the social comings and goings of the characters in Moscow. But it is clear that most of the characters are well thought out and do represent something of importance to Protazanov, and I’ve seen hinted in texts on the film about a number of subtexts that I won’t go into, or even don’t fully understand. There is for example the fact that when Los is fighting with Aelita, she for a moment turns into his wife Natasha – clearly another hint at the fact that he is creating Aelita as a substitute for his uninspired marriage, but perhaps also a comment on women’s standing in society and in the imagination of men. There is also a rather central character, Spiridonov, who starts off building the space ship with Los, but ultimately flees to the west, where he finds happines in the capitalist system. And he is played by the same actor that plays Los, Nikolai Tsereteli.
And now try and follow: When Spiridonov has left the country, Los actually disguises himself as Spiridonov when he is trying to get to his spaceship – for reasons I must admit I now don’t even remember. Once on the spaceship Kravtsov, who thinks that Los is Spiridonov, accuses him for a crime that Spiridonov actually didn’t commit. So we have an actor playing a character who disguises himself as another character, who the actor also plays, and he is accused for a crime that the character he is disguised as did not commit, and he is even doubly innocent because he isn’t even that character. Everybody on board? I’m not. This could simply be a pun on the Soviet justice system that basically held you guilty, no matter how innocent you are, if that is what they have decided. And as a matter of fact, when Kravtsov finds out that he is standing beside Los and not Spiridonov, he just changes to charges and accuses Los for impersonating another person. The means to an end, once again.
But I also feel that the double play on Spiridonov/Los has a deeper meaning for Protazanov. There is a strong theme of going away and returning in the film. Spiridonov flees to a capitalist country and stays. In the beginning Gusev returns from fighting the revolutionary war. At one point in the film Los goes away to work for the government in another city, and then returns. Los, Gusev and Kravtsov (and Spiridonov in the form of Los?) all go away all the way to Mars, but then return. Or did they leave at all? Has anyone actually left to anywhere, or is Spiridonov in fact still in the Soviet Union, although he has fled to the west? Spiridonov is basically a capitalist, while Los is a clearly a closet capitalist. Why is this important? Well, because Alexei Tolstoy, who wrote the book Aelita, which the film is based on, was one of the Russians who fled abroad after the revolution in 1917, and then returned later when things had cooled down. The director Yakov Protazanov was a highly acclaimed director in czarist Russia before the revolution (He made the classic Departure of a Grand Old Man about the last days of author Lev Tolstoy in 1912, as well as the highly acclaimed The Queen of Spades  based on Pushkin, and Father Sergius  based on Lev Tolstoy). He also fled Russia after the revolution, and had a quite successful career in France for a few years. He was then convinced to return to the Soviet Union, and was more or less received as the returning prodigal son. Aelita was his first film after his return. It was hugely expensive and a massive advertisement campaign was launched prior to the opening night of the film. In life imitating art, the studio actually distributed flyers, created billboards and put ads in papers and radio with the words Anta Odeli Uta, and then told people to see the film to understand the meaning. Was this film actually a cloaked autobiography of the director with all its themes of leaving to capitalist countries to chase dreams, and then returning to a country where very little had changed despite a highly advertised socialist revolution? Were the capitalist dreams and the communist dreams in fact one and the same? Both as escapist and unreal? This film can be picked apart and analysed forever.
Only goes to show that some films that are very readily dismissed as ”communist propaganda” or ”escapist entertainment” can sometimes be a lot more complicated than at first glance.
Now – that’s that about the socio-political meaning of the film, although it will be pretty impossible to completely stay away from the subject, since this is still a Soviet film, and thus everything must be put in that socio-political context. But let’s try and move on.
This was, as mentioned before, the first full length sci-fi feature film of Russia. In 1924 there was something of a liberal stint in the Soviet Union, that lasted through most of the decade. The NEP-policy was as a matter of fact something of a mixed economy, that allowed for a certain degree of private entrepreneurship. The decade that coincided with the Roaring Twenties in USA and the Crazy Twenties in France was also something of an economically, culturally and sexually liberal era in the Soviet Union. It saw the explosion of the modernist art scene in Russia, and that also carried on to film. Lev Kuleshov, who coined the so-called Kuleshov editing effect, was creating a highly experimentalist studio at Gosfilm in Moscow, and one of his adepts, Sergei Eisenstein, revolutionised cinema with his ideas of editorial montage, and the ”collision” of images, best remembered from his 1925 masterpiece Battleship Potemkin. During this decade film makers also enjoyed a certain degree of artistic freedom, partly because the authorities simply couldn’t afford to completely nationalise the film industry.
Although people like Eisenstein and Kuleshov were highly acclaimed Soviet artists, their ideas on experimental film and the freedom of the artist did not always sit well with the authorities. As a matter of fact, Yakov Protazanov was a much more traditional film maker. Despite the surrealistic and constructivist design of Mars, the film Aelita is fairly traditionally shot and edited, which also drew harsh criticism from Eisenstein, the country’s leading film maker at the time. As a contemplation on form it is not very interesting.
What is interesting, though, is the design. Drawing both from constructivist and surrealist art traditions, as well as German expressionist film making, Viktor Simov created imaginative and grandiose set designs. Seeing the sets of Mars is like stepping into a constructivist painting. The lines are long and straight, there is an abundance of diagonals and triangles, broken in places by flowing curves and circles. Everything seems to be on different levels, with strange pathways and staircases leading back and forth and folding on themselves. Everything on Mars seems to happen indoors. The huge sets both have a sense of cold, empty space and cluttered claustrophobia. Much of the design echoes later Stalinist concrete simplicity, but have dashes of utter and delicate beauty, like the decorative wells or fountains with perfectly placed white strings going from the floor several meters up into the ceiling. It is all a strange mix of cold, practical functionalism and sometimes completely whimsy decoration.
On the whimsical side are no doubt the Martian costumes by Alexandra Exter and Isak Rabinovich. Many of the Martian men seem to be primarily clad in plastic tubing with a lot of silly hats in a very modernist tradition. The geometrical elements are no less important in the costumes than the sets, and the robes, pants, jackets and dresses are starkly contrasted in black and white. Both Aelita and her maidservant wear highly unpractical headgear with long, spidery spokes and wires coming out of the top and on the sides. And Ihoshka seems to be wearing a pair of overtrousers made from thin blades of metal, hinged by the knees and acting as some sort of baggy pants on top of her pants.
In short, the look of Mars is mindbogglingly beautiful, inventive, inspired, funny and very scary. Nothing of the sort had been seen before – the only real point of reference would be the surrealist set pieces that Hermann Warm and Walter Reimann designed for Robert Wiene’s 1920 masterpiece of expressionism, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, which was obviously an inspiration for the design of Aelita. In an example of the cyclic movements of ideas in film, another German expressionist masterpiece, Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic Metropolis (review) was in turn highly influenced by Aelita.
What many people might not realise, especially in the west, today is that the cast of the film were all among the A-listers if Moscow theater and cinema. Almost all of them went on to receive one or multiple awards for their contribution to Soviet art and cinema. Most of the actors at one time or another in their career received the title People’s Artist of the USSR. Not that it was such a rare title, some years over 50 of them were handed out. Among the cast were also several Lenin and Stalin laureates. And the quality shows. The acting in the film is superb, from the leads down to the bit parts. Nikolai Tsereteli carries the demanding dual role of Los/Spridonov with such bravado, that at first viewing I didn’t realise they were played by the same actor even when Los disguised himself as Spiridonov. Tsereteli does a very good job of alternating between dark jealousy and boyish daydreaming. Nikolai Batalov does a solid job as the happy-go-lucky, social socialist hero Gusev, a nice contrast to the fidgety and insecure Los. Yuliya Solntseva is absolutely spellbinding as the Frida Kahlo-like Aelita, expressing at the same time the sterile coldness of Mars and the girlish enthusiasm of her new plaything, Earth. As a revolutionary leader and later despot of the Red Planet, she is downright scary. Solntseva was the wife of the Ukrainian master director Alexander Dovzhenko, who created the spellbinding Ukraine trilogy consisting of Zvenigora, Arsenal and Earth in the late twenties and thirties. The poetic and visually stunning films with folkloristic and naturalistic motifs blended Soviet propaganda with subtle Ukrainian nationalist notions, and many of his films are considered milestones of art cinema. Dovzhenko also directed the 1935 film Aerograd – a slightly futuristic bolshevik frontier film in the vein of John Ford – but with the prairie substituted with the deep forests of eastern USSR and the Indians with Japanese. Solntseva herself would go on to become an accomplished director, and completed some of her husbands films from scripts and notes after his death in 1956. Alexandra Peregonets, playing Aelita’s maidservant, was killed during World War II. Peregonets started working at a theatre in Simferopol. Crimea, present day Ukraine/Russia in 1931. In 1942 the Nazis invaded Crimea, but allowed the theatre where she worked to continue its regular business. Peregonets started a youth theatre school, intended to save the Russians/Ukrainians from being sent to Germany to death camps. She also got involved in an underground resistance group, that is said to have carried out over 50 missions. One of its most elaborate plans was to assassinate Adolf Hitler when he was set to visit Simferopol in 1943. Hitler never showed up, though. In 1944 the underground group was discovered and caught. Peregonets was tortured and shot to death by the Nazis in April 1944.
The film has been criticized for rather long and uninteresting stretches depicting social life in Moscow, and the slow rebuilding of Russia. These stretches have been described as ”soap opera”, but from the reading of the film above, it is clear that director Protazanov isn’t just filling screen time with trifles, but rather saying something on a more philosophical level. Unfortunately that doesn’t prevent the film from getting a bit boring at times, especially since we have subplots that don’t really go anywhere, and at one point a little too many characters are involved in too many social plots and it’s hard to keep track of exactly who does what and what their motivations are. It does feel at times like Protazanov wanted to say a little too many things at once with the film.
As a straightforward sci-fi space travel film it probably is something of a disappointment to some viewers as the pace is rather sluggish during the first half of the film. Once our revolutionary heroes set off for Mars and the earthbound subplots are dropped, it picks up its pace somewhat. If one doesn’t see past the thin veil of seeming Soviet propaganda that was required by Protazanov to get the film made, I can also understand why it can be regarded as a slightly off-putting film. As a socio-political examination of the Soviet mindset and the so called revolutionary spirit it is nonetheless a masterpiece and is so rich in levels and textures that it grows in one’s mind the more one ponders the meaning of the movie. It is, in fact, one of the smartest political satires ever made, and the fact that Protazanov was able to get it made in the Soviet Union says something about the genius of the writer/director. It is no coincidence that it is one of the five most recognized Soviet films outside Russia. It would take 50 years for Russian cinema to create a sci-fi film of the same class and depth as Aelita, and that film was Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. The intellectual baggage he lays on the film is both its blessing and its curse, though, and ultimately these kind of films do require a certain amount of background knowledge to completely enjoy.
Aelita. 1924, The Soviet Union/Russia. Directed by: Yakov Protazanov. Written by: Alexei Fayko, Fyodor Ostep, Yakov Protazanov. Based on the book by Alexei Tolstoy. Starring: Nikolai Tsereteli, Nikolai Batalov, Yuliya Solntseva, Valentina Kuindzhi. Cinematography: Emil Schünemann, Yuri Zhelyabuszhky, Igor Ilyinsky, Vera Orlova, Pavel Pol, Konstantin Eggert, Yuri Zadavsky, Alexandra Peregonets, Yosif Toltanov. Art direction: Yuri Zhelyabuszhky. Set design: Viktor Simov. Costume design: Alexandra Exter, Isak Rabinovich. Make-up: N. Sorokin. Produced for Mezhradom-Rus.