(8/10) Ostensibly Russia’s/USSR’s first sci-fi film, this political 1924 space fantasy lays down a surprisingly intelligent criticism of the communist revolution, once you look past the clunky, propagandistic symbolism on the surface. Although most of the movie is Earth-bound, it is remembered for the amazing constructivist sets and costumes on Mars, designed by internationally famed artist Alexandra Exter.
Aelita: Queen of Mars (Аэлита). 1924, USSR/Russia. Directed by: Yakov Protazanov. Written by: Alexei Fayko, Fyodor Ostep, Yakov Protazanov. Based on a book by Alexei Tolstoy. Starring: Nikolai Tsereteli, Nikolai Batalov, Yuliya Solntseva, Valentina Kuindzhi. IMDb score: 6.6. Tomatometer: 100. Metacritic: N/A.
Aelita: Queen of Mars, has been just as highly praised as it has often been misunderstood. There are few, though, who contest its visual influence on the genre of science fiction. It is also (as far as we can tell) 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 in the Soviet Union. It remains director Yakov Protazanov’s best remembered film. It is sometimes dismissed as a blatant example of communist propaganda, but it is a lot more complicated than that.
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. 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 (Nikolai Tsereteli) we see the progression of society from 1921 to 1924 with the help of Vladimir Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP). The movie wants us understand that the NEP policy, introduced in 1921, took care of much of the problems of the old Tsarist system (and in reality the chaos that arose through the 1917 revolution) and WWI. In 1924, the film lets us know, there’s still scarcity and poverty, but life of the whole is 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. Soviet Russia optimistically looks toward a brighter future for all; all but the disgruntled aristocracy who reminisce about the good old days when they lived in luxury.
The other world is Mars. Mars is ruled by a despotic king called Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert) and a rich and ruthless elite who now 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.
The king’s head scientist Gol (Yuri Zavadsky) 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 (Yuliya Solntseva) who likes to do forbidden things along with her favourite maidservant Ihoshka (Aleksandra Peregonets). 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 by 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 is communist propaganda at its most basic, and this is what the Soviet film council ordered – and it is as such that a lot of 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 receive a strange radio message carrying the words Anta Odeli Uta (sort of sound like A-eli-ta …). One of his co-workers jokes that it might be from Mars. Los is bored of his dull job and has problems at home, as he suspects that a lodger, a sleazy and corrupt NEP-officer Viktor Ehrlich (Pavel Pol), is having an affair with his wife Natasha (Valentina Kuintzhi). The idea of a secret message from Mars is just what he needs to get absorbed by daydreams of interplanetary romance and adventure. He engages 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 dreams about Mars and the beautiful Aelita, who is looking down at him from her viewing machine.
Things on Earth get increasingly worse as Los’ jealousy grows – to the point that he actually fires a gun on his wife and leaves her for dead in their home. Simultaneously he is investigated by a hack wannabe KGB investigator, Kravtsov (Igor Ilyinsky), who suspects him of stealing sugar (apparently a most serious crime during the NEP rationings).
After finally completing his space ship, he sets out on the voyage with a retired soldier, Gusev (Nikolai Balatov) – 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.
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 an 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 Princess 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. Neither has he killed his wife, whom he happily reunites with after it is made clear that she really was never involved with Ehrlich, who was running a con all along.
But this is not all. Most of the movie takes place on Earth, and follows several strands of subplot. One strand is the happy-go-lucky, patriotic Gusev trying to find his place in society now that there is no more revolution to fight for, and his exploits in winning the heart of the young nurse Masha (Vera Orlova), who becomes his wife. Then there’s a whole other subplot involving the NEP enforcer Ehrlich who arrives in Moscow from the provinces and takes up lodging in the same house as Los and Natasha. Ehrlich is a corrupt swindler who works a con along with his wife Yelena (N. Tretyakova), whom he introduces as his sister. In order to swindle Natasha and Los Ehrlich tries to seduce Natasha, all the while stealing valuables and forging ration documents in order to steal sugar.
And then there’s the oddest subplots of them all, involving Los’ colleague Spridonov (also played by Tsereteli, but with glasses and a fake beard), which I’ll get to later.
One interpretation of the film is that since everything that happens on Mars, and much of what happens on Earth is a dream, 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 exist. 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 complement to the second. 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 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 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 at Central Europe Reviews, 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.
All the subplots and of subtleties has led to the film being dismissed 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. 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. Then there’s the character of Spiridonov, who starts off building the space ship with Los, but ultimately flees to the West, where he finds happiness in the capitalist system. And, as mentioned, he is played by the same actor that plays Los, Nikolai Tsereteli.
When Spiridonov has left the country, Los actually disguises himself as Spiridonov, in one sequence we are told that “in his dreams, Los disguises himself as Spridonov” after he has “killed” his wife. Los also continues work on the spaceship in this disguise. After lift-off Kravtsov, who thinks that Los is Spiridonov, accuses him for a crime that Spiridonov actually didn’t commit (the sugar theft). But Kravtsov has no idea that Los “killed” his wife. 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, but not for the crime that he thinks that he committed, but which he actually didn’t commit either. Everybody on board? I’m not. This could simply be a pun on the Soviet justice system, or a philosophical musing on guilt and innocence.
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 of the movie Gusev returns from fighting the revolutionary war (in Ukraine?). 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 – as was Protazanov: both returned to USSR in 1923. And both screenwriters, Aleksei Fajko and Fyodor Otsep, emigrated from the Soviet Union later in the twenties. Costume designer Alexandra Exter left for France soon after the film was finished.
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, 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.
Today Aelita is probably author Aleksei Tolstoy’s best known novel, thanks to the film adaptation. However, the film and the novel share very few similarities. The screenplay was written by Aleksei Fajko and Fyodor Otsep, and Protazanov most certainly had extensive input. Little is known of Fajko, who only has four screenplay credits on IMDb, of which three are little remembered romantic comedies. However one of them was to prove very important for Aelita, as it was the film that introduced Yuliya Solntseva, Nikolai Tsetereli and Ilya Ilyinsky to the silver screen – all of whom had central roles in Aelita. This film was called The Cigarette Girl of Mosselprom, a romantic comedy set in the young film industry of Moscow, a care-free, urban, American-style romcom that pointed the way to a new, modern Soviet union as promised by the brief NEP period and the moral liberalism that had been promised by socialist thinkers like Lenin and Aleksandra Kollontai, before the clampdown of the militant autocracy of Stalinism. The film was photographed by Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky, one of the veterans of Russians and Soviet film, who also shot Aelita along with German cinematographer Emil Schünemann.
Otsep was a major player in early Soviet cinema, as he was appointed head of the Soviet Film Cooperative in 1918. In 1926 he turned to directing, and in 1929 moved to Germany where he started making films for a Soviet-backed German production company. With the rise of the Nazis Otsep fled to France, where he made directed a couple of films, after which he made his way to Hollywood via Britain. However, he wasn’t able to establish himself as a director over there, and made his last two films in Canada.
Otsep is best known for his adaptations of stories by Lev Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but Aelita is far and beyond his most famous movie work. Other well-known films of his are The Murderer Dimitri Karamazov (Germany, 1931), A Woman Alone (UK, 1936) and the Pro-Soviet drama Three Russian Girls (1943, USA). All these three films starred Otsep’s wife, Swedish-Ukrainian movie star Anna Sten. The latter was nominated for an Oscar for best musical score.
The novel Aelita sees inventor Los and retired soldier Gusev take off to Mars in a spaceship. On Mars they find that the planet is ruled by a class of engineers, whose leader is called Tuskub. Tuskub has a daughter called Aelita, with whom Los falls in love. Los and Gusev step right into a tumultuous time, as there is a popular uprising against the engineers, into which Gusev throws himself. But that’s really where the similarities between book and film end.
The book does paint Mars as a class society, with the workers living below ground close to the machines that they operate. However, the popular uprising has its roots in something as modern as climate change: Mars is cooling and the polar caps, providing the planet’s water, have stopped melting. Tuskub and a majority of the engineers plan to destroy the Martian capital in order to hasten the downfall of Martian society, just as their race did earlier with Atlantis. The workers and a fringe group of the engineers, including Aelita, oppose the plan, and civil war breaks out. Los cares little for the fight, and simply tries to get back to Earth, while the hands-on communist soldier Gusev decides to join the fight against Tuskub and the engineers.
About 97 percent of the novel takes place on Mars, and all the film’s intricate subplots on Earth are wholly absent from the book, as is everything regarding the dream sequence, Aelita’s remote viewing machine, her double role as revolutionary/traitor, etc. There’s no Ehrlich, no Natasha, no Masha, no Kravtsov, no Spiridonov, no doppelgänger theme, no mysterious radio message, nor really much mention of life on Earth, apart from a short introductory sequence in the beginning. While the book does contain some political substance, this is really of secondary importance. Instead the novel feels quite similar to other space operas published around the world at the same time.
Aleksei Tolstoy would certainly have been acquainted with the work by H.G. Wells and his French counterpart J.-H. Rosny ainé, and he might have been aware of two German Mars novels: Two Planets by Kurd Lasswitz and WunderWelten by Friedrich Wilhelm Mader. However, his novel probably drew most of its inspiration from Edgar Rice Burrough’s pulp stories A Princess of Mars and its sequels. 1920-1921 were also crucial years for Eastern European science fiction. In 1920 Russian rocket engineer and space theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky published his only novel Beyond Planet Earth, and Yevgeni Zamyatin published the dystopian allegory We. And in 1921 Czech author Karel Capek wrote his famous robot play R.U.R., which surely inspired Tolstoy with its theme of working-class uprising. In fact, the screenwriters, with their ambiguous feelings about revolution, seem to draw as much inspiration from the always satirical Capek as from Tolstoy’s novel.
Tolstoy only wrote one other science fiction novel: The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1926), also known as The Garin Death Ray or The Death Box (which despite a long-standing myth isn’t the inspiration for Lev Kuleshov’s film The Death Ray, as the film was released before the book). In 1924 Tolstoy wrote the play Bunt Mashin, which was inspired by R.U.R., and in 1932 he co-wrote the libretto for Dmitri Shostakovich’s satirical opera Orango, which portrays a “biomorph”, half-man and half-monkey. During his lifetime, however, Tolstoy was primarily known and hailed for his historical novels, in particular the 1921-1940 trilogy The Road to Calvary, portraying the early years of the Soviet Union, and his massive and ultimately unfinished trilogy about Ivan the Terrible. He also wrote a few very successful children’s books: one that is probably known to most Western readers is The Giant Turnip. Tolstoy was one of the most successful and saluted Soviet authors of the period between the two world wars, despite his aristocratic background and his initial scepticism of the Bolshevik uprising, which led to his self-imposed exile between 1917 and 1923. He was very remotely related to literary giant Lev Tolstoy, and slightly closer related to author Ivan Turgenyev.
Aelita was, as mentioned, the first full length sci-fi feature film of Russia, and in fact only the second sci-fi feature film of eastern Europe after Czechoslovakia’s Melchiad Koloman (1920, review). 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, inventor of 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, perhaps 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 and Isak Rabinovich 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, possibly due to budget restrictions. 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.
The sets are clearly inspired by constructivist artists like Alexander Rodchenko and Vladimir Tatin, but also draw on German Expressionist films, in particular Algol (1920, review) and Robert Wiene’s Raskolnikow (1923). The themes are also such as can be found many German Expressionist films, in turn partly inspired by both German and Russian gothic and romance novels, such as surreal the dreamscape, the doppelgänger motif, tragic love and morbid jealousy and long travels both in geography and time.
On the whimsical side are no doubt the Martian costumes by Alexandra Exter. 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.
Painter and designer Alexandra Exter (sometimes transliterated as Aleksandra Ekster) is considered one of the foremost artists and influencers of the Russian avantgarde art movement. Born into a wealthy Belarussian family and married to a Ukrainian elite lawyer, Exter was the creme de la creme of the European art community, from Kiev to Paris. Beside her own paintings she often worked with concept design for costumes for theatres and ballets, and was the primary costume designer as well as set designer for Aelita. Aelita was one of her last works completed in the Soviet Union before she moved for good to Paris.
The role played by Aelita in the last third of the film is interesting, as she first acts as an aristocratic proponent of the workers revolution, in essence becomes the popular figurehead of a socialist uprising, only to turn on the workers as soon as she has secured power for herself, once again re-establishing aristocratic autocracy. This theme was prevalent in Bolshevik rhetoric of the day, a sort of warning against false prophets: members of the capitalist class seemingly siding with the workers’ cause in order to reach compromises. Gusev even voices his concern over this at one point: rulers aren’t supposed to be revolutionaries. But this theme of a Janus-faced agitator is one that is also found in a number of German films prior to Aelita, such as the afore-mentioned Algol, as well as the 1916 serial Homunculus (review). The theme was explored further (and better) in Fritz Lang’s and Thea von Harbou’s Metropolis (1927, review). That’s a film inspired by Aelita which does almost everything Aelita tries to do and does it better. Aelita herself is a case in point: as a character there really aren’t heads nor tails to her. She starts out as a romantic, headstrong girl more interested in daydreams than politics, but then suddenly turns into a highly political entity with plans of world domination toward the last third of the film. As a character she is terribly written and merely seems to exist as a narrative convenience in order to provide whatever motivations and deus ex machinas that the plot requires.
The cast of the film were all among the A-listers of Moscow’s theatre and cinema. The acting 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 was shown to disguise 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 socialist hero Gusev, a nice contrast to the fidgety and insecure Los. Batalov was one of Russia’s biggest movie stars of the twenties, appearing in a number of high-profile films, including Abram Room’s masterpiece Bed and Sofa (1927), a film so liberal in its portrayal of polygamy, gay sex and abortion that it was actually banned – not in the Soviet Union, but in Europe and the US.
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.
Aelita has been criticised for rather long and uninteresting stretches depicting social life in Moscow, and the slow rebuilding of Russia, as well as the numerous subplots leading up to Los trying to kill his wife. Granted, there is method to the soap opera, as the filmmakers are making political points with all these subplots. Unfortunately that doesn’t prevent the film from dragging at times. At one point too many characters are involved in too many subplots and it’s hard to keep track of exactly who does what and what their motivations are and even who is who and how they are connected. The multitude of interconnected subplots also feel disconnected from the epic Mars adventure, even though they intrude on each other. They are intellectually connected, but not emotionally.
Purists can, with some merit, claim that the film really isn’t science fiction, as it is made rather clear early on that the whole Mars trip is just a dream sequence. However, I also feel that this is too literal an interpretation of the movie. While the end leaves little doubt that Aelita and her planet are just figments of Los’ imagination, I would make the argument that one cannot be wholly sure of just what is reality and what is dream for most of the film. In that sense the film has a Kafkaesque, or Hoffmanesque if you like, ambiguity about it, and the strange double identity of Los/Spiridonov is played out in a way that foreshadows some of the works of the French Nouvelle Vague. The segments carry the same kind of uneasy uncertainty of identity and reality that was later displayed for example in Chris Marker’s Le Jetée (1962) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965). But, fine, if one wants to nitpick one can argue that it’s not really a sci-fi movie, but I have never quite understood the point of such a strict categorisation of films, or art in general. It may have some academic merit, but in my opinion: if it looks like sci-fi, if it smells like sci-fi, if it feels like sci-fi, why not just call it sci-fi? Fair enough, the frame story isn’t science fiction, and does it does pull the rug from under the feet of the story within the story, but that story is still sci-fi, even if it is a dream sequence. Can we agree that part of the film is science fiction and part isn’t? (I’m looking at you, Linnea at RobotMariaReviews.)
In a way it feels as if Aelita is a film that has been both over- and under-sold. Those who are expecting a Princess of Mars-type adventure à la Edgar Rice Burroughs will be sadly disappointed. The film is usually sold on its merit of being one of the first feature films to envision a trip to Mars, and on its stunning visuals. But Protazanov and the screenwriters are not interested in either space exploration or Mars one single iota. This film is all about the Soviet Union, the here and now of the time when the film was made. And as a social and political allegory it is does pay off in spades. Is it communist propaganda? Yes, one can say that it is communist propaganda in the same way that we can say that Independence Day (1996) is US propaganda. But I would argue that Aelita’s propaganda is much less heavy-handed than that of Independence Day. While cloaked as a revolutionary film, it actually asks a lot of difficult questions about the motivations for and the consequences of violent revolution.
As a science fiction space travel film, it does feel like Aelita leaves you short-changed. With the exception of Los/Spiridonov, the characters are one-dimensional stereotypes, but that is true for so many silent films. Narratively the film feels clunky at times and a bit too long. On the other hand, its an intelligent social and political allegory, at times an intriguing psychological thriller with surrealist elements that are highly enjoyable. It’s occasionally very funny and witty, and it’s superbly acted. The visual design is just phenomenal, if somewhat dully filmed. While Aelita borrowed from German Expressionism, it also had a huge influence on Metropolis, both thematically and visually, not to mention a lot of other science fiction films to come.
Interestingly enough, as a space adventure film with aliens involved, Aelita is something of an anomaly. The first feature film involving space explorations and the discovery of alien civilisations was the Danish utopia A Trip to Mars (Himmelskibet, 1918, review). There was a British adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon made in 1919, probably inspired by the Danish film. However, that film has been lost for almost a century, and all that remains is a synopsis, a couple of stills and a few short newspaper reviews. Considering the state of British cinema at the time, the movie would most certainly have been very crude, and that’s the feeling one also gets from the photos and reviews. However, at 50 minutes it should be counted as the second alien civilisation movie. Aelita came along in 1924, and would remain the last European movie of its kind before the sci-fi boom of the fifties. There were a few moon landing films, but they were more actual science fiction than space fantasy. The first US feature film to take a trip to a distant planet was the bizarre science fiction musical comedy Just Imagine (review) released in 1930.
These were the only four alien civilisation space travel feature films released during the first 25 years of of cinema, and oddly enough would remain the only for feature films on the subject right up until the early fifties and the US-USSR space race. But of course, friends of little green men and space monsters were saved by the US film serials that emerged in the latter half of the thirties, like Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and Space Patrol.
How influential was Aelita? It’s always difficult to answer these questions, as it is easy to overlook the fact that ideas are never born in a vacuum, and when someone has an idea, one can be pretty sure that some other person has a similar idea based on similar facts and trends on the other side of the world. The film borrowed its title and its characters from Tolstoy’s novel, added some Dostoyevsky and Lev Tolstoy, as well a bit of Goethe, Hoffmann and H.G. Wells, and a big pile of Marx, Lenin and Trotskiy. The designs were borrowed from the constructivists and expressionists and the costumes from modernist opera designs. So in a sense, there was nothing new in this film. On the other hand, everything about this film was new, as these elements had never before been combined in such a way. The case for the film Aelita’s influence on the genre of science fiction is weakened by the fact that it was quickly banned in its primary geographic region, the Soviet Union. Not only that, basically the whole genre of science fiction was repressed by the soon dominating cultural ideology of Soviet Realism. So while it might have inspired Russian filmmakers, those who saw the film never got a chance to emulate its style. However, the film would have been shown at least in Germany, France, the US, and probably other European countries as well. The best case for the influence of the film is that it was one of the many works that inspired Metropolis. But by its gargantuan success, Metropolis more or less replaced Aelita as the reference point for the style of films that both movies represented.
Tolstoy’s novel may in fact have had a bigger impact on science fiction than the film, as it was one of the first novels to actually deal with Mars as a dying civilisation. The notion of Mars as a dead or dying planet was old, though, and had been ingrained in the public conscience since Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli thought he saw channels on Mars – or “canals” as they were misinterpreted as in English translations. However, mist Mars-based literature dealt with Mars as a utopia in the same vein as the moon was used as a canvas for political, philosophical and religious discussion in the 17th and 18th centuries by authors like Francis Godwin and Cyrano de Bergerac. The Hollywood movie Flight to Mars (1951) was probably the first film set in a dying Martian civilisation, where our Terrestrian heroes try to prevent the Martians from launching an invasion on Earth. The film is clearly inspired by the novel Aelita – not so much the film – and by Martian invasion trope popularised by H.G. Wells’ late 19th century novel The War of the Worlds.
Finally: Is Aelita better or worse than its source novel? It’s impossible to answer the questions, as they are so obviously two completely different animals. The novel is s pulpy space adventure with some social and political commentary thrown in for good measure. The film is a political allegory with around 90 percent wholly original material. I guess it’s really a question of what you’re more into personally.
Somewhat surprisingly, Aelita has never had a proper remake or adaptation, perhaps because of the novel’s relative obscurity in Western culture and the fact that the film was really only made readily available to the public with the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the DVD and webstores (although it was released on video in the US in 1991). The novel was adapted into a campy, psychedelic sort of Ed Wood-styled low-budget TV movie in Hungary in 1980, but the actual story of the book has never been put on screen.
Aelita, Queen of Mars (Аэлита). 1924, USSR/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, Yusif Tolchanov. Art direction: Yuri Zhelyabuszhky. Set design: Viktor Simov, Isak Rabinovich, Alexandra Exter. Costume design: Alexandra Exter. Make-up: N. Sorokin. Produced for Mezhradom-Rus.