Friday Editor’s Pick: Aelita – Queen of Mars (1924)

by on April 13, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri April 20 at 7:00 at Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]

Organized by the Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin, and the Berlin International Film Festival, “Mezhrabpom: The Red Dream Factory” celebrates the revolutionary Soviet studio – with screenings so rare intertitles will require live translation. Ben Model provides theatre organ accompaniment.

John Stanley for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Even before Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon roved the space ways, the Russians produced Aelita. In 1924, a number of artists steeped in the Soviet avant-garde movement of the post- Revolution era, in an effort to compete with the epic cinema of Italy and America, designed a fantasy set of Mars, bold and breathtaking. The film’s unique imagery of a futuristic society on another planet was to become the forerunner for much of the imagery that later would become standard in American comic strips and movies depicting adventures on far-flung worlds. And yet Aelita, which was one of the most influential Soviet films of its time, has remained obscure, too rarely seen for a film so important to the science-fiction canon. Based loosely on a novel by Alexei Tolstoi, the story line of Aelita is made up of diverse elements, shifting from simplistic lighthearted comedy to a murder-detective plot to a revolt of interstellar consequences. Underlying the entire production is a sense of interstellar adventure in the Edgar Rice Burroughs tradition.
Aelita was a landmark film produced during Lenin’s New Economic Policy, an austere time for the Russian working class, which was just being introduced to collectivism. Western film-making standards were imitated so the film would find an international audience. Director Yakov Protazanov, who before the revolution had been Russia’s most successful film maker, and who had been in self- imposed exile in Paris since 1917, was brought back to the Soviet Union to direct ”Aelita.” He had been chosen because of his ability to humanize characters at a time when most Soviet directors seemed trapped in making polemic message films. Also known for capturing a sense of Soviet folk humor in his work, Protazanov called on several creative designers from the Moscow stage who adopted a sweeping style that reflected Protazanov’s exposure to the Cubist art movement in France. The stylized Martian society sequences, with a heavy use of glass and plastic materials, also reflected the Russian art movement known as Constructivism. Aelita is one bizarre science-fictional image, with antenna jutting from her bouffant hairdo in all directions and a metallic brassiere application that almost makes it appear that she has three breasts.



J.R. Jones for the Chicago Reader:

A fascinating relic, this silent 1924 Soviet feature melds primitive sci-fi with Leninist propaganda: a renegade engineer, obsessed with mysterious radio signals from outer space, embarks on a rocket trip to Mars and discovers a capitalist society that freezes workers and puts them in cold storage for later use. (It’s not such a red planet after all.) Constructivist painter Alexandra Ekster designed the strikingly angular sets and costumes, which would influence Hollywood’s Flash Gordon serials of the 30s. For a film about the future, this is oddly preoccupied with the past, as the characters try to sever their emotional ties to prerevolutionary Russia.


James Newman for Images Journal:

Before Eisenstein, Vertov, and Pudovkin captured the attention of the world with a new and exciting approach to filmmaking, Soviet filmmaker Yakov Protazanov forged an impressive career. The movie’s influence is hard to overestimate. The art design for Aelita is, simply put, out of this world. Spokes radiate from the Queen’s hat. Doors open like camera apertures. Aelita’s maid wears a spiral-shaped hat that seems to radiate from her forehead and sweep around her head. Gor, the guardian of the planet’s energy, dresses in plastic tubes. Sentries look like robots, with face masks and huge ball joints at their shoulders. Staircases start one direction and then twist back in other directions–like Escher drawings. Columns arch like rib bones. The Elders march with their hands clasped within large medallion-shaped devices that they wear on their chests. Wires that function like harp strings encircle small pools and radiate to the high ceilings. Gor’s telescope looks like a ship’s mast with springs, prisms, and triangles instead of sails. This is a world like no other hitherto captured on film.



Kevin Thomas for the Los Angeles Times:

Echoing “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” in the boldly geometric design of the sets and costumes in its Martian sequences and anticipating “Metropolis” in its social protest, “Aelita” is nevertheless a highly idiosyncratic work. “Aelita” offers a jolting contrast to the Russian silent classics with their celebrated use of montage and is a brisk plunge into the hardships and uncertainties of the fledgling communist state. Yet in its overstated “emoting” and in the spectacular aura of its Martian sequences, it recalls the silents of C.B. DeMille.
The costumes bring to mind those of Erte and also those of Natasha Rambova for Nazimova’s “Salome.” The razor-sharp print reveals in full measure the dexterity and spontaneity of cinematographers Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky and E. Schoneman, who would have been right at home in the cinema of the French New Wave. The resurfacing of “Aelita: Queen of Mars” (Times-rated Mature for its extremely complicated narrative), a popular success widely disparaged upon its original release, should ensure its rightful place in the Soviet cinema.


Andrew J. Horton introduces his analysis for Central European Review:

Despite heavy criticisms at the time from official Soviet critics, Aelita emerges today as a highly complex film that holds as many breaks with pre-revolutionary cinema as it has continuities. It engages with a number of themes and styles and attempts to bring them together within a sophisticated plot which comments on the social, political and historical reality of 1920s Russia, as well as providing audiences with a ripping yarn.
To bring these themes together Protazanov employs a series of interlinking metaphors centring around images of differing times, differing spaces, journeys between these spaces, substitution and doubling, building and change, and oppositions between domestic life and fantasy. It is within this context that the film draws on the realm of science fiction – not as an end in its own right, but as part of Protazanov’s rich metaphoric language to talk about earth-bound affairs.



J. Hoberman for The Village Voice:

Delirious – reaches its giddy climax with a proletarian revolution on the planet Mars. Aelita set out to be the Soviet equivalent of Caligari. Where Caligari popularized an already passe expressionism, Aelita made use of a particularly Soviet modernism, including a heavy infusion of Meyerholdian avant-vaudeville. Dressed in geometric aluminum and glass tutus, the female Martians more than match the curved stairs and translucent columns of the ultraconstructivist sets (which, as in Caligari, turn out to be a subjective hallucination). Mars is total delirium; its denizens would be the best-dressed nightclubbers in New York. “Touch my lips with your lops as those Earth people did,” Aelita – a sensuous pixie with bobbed hair and a slinky metallic evening gown – commands Loss.
Aelita may have been the most elaborately realized space opera since Melies’s 1902 Voyage to the Moon. (The vision of slave workers in Cubo-Futurist helmets sweating over star-shaped gears anticipates Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis, even as the mixing of conjugal paranoia with delusions of revolutionary grandeur oddly forecasts Total Recall.) Still, just as evocative as the Martian sets are those scenes shot in the streets of Moscow during the winters of ’23 and ’24. The bundled-up extras, the steam shovels and scaffolding, the interpolated footage of peoples’ nurseries and revolutionary pageants, the semidocumentary plot devices hinging upon food shortages, hosting problems, queues, the cast of opportunistic speculators and nostalgic bourgies are bizarrely juxtaposed against the constructivist extravagances. Although the old Soviet Union now seems like science fiction itself, for the Moscow of 1924, the future was Now.



Breaking! Daniel Kasman in a recent piece for The Chiseler:

In 1924 Yakov Protazanov dreams of Vertigo. Or maybe of Metropolis-Vier um die Frau. Or maybe just Soviet Socialist Republics…in space—his film from that year, Aelita, despite its stolid form is over-delirious with future possibilities. A mysterious, indecipherable message is received by radio operators around the globe, but only a great Soviet engineer, one who has dreams of Mars and Martians, posits the absurd theory that maybe, possibly, it’s a message from outer space. It is difficult to understand why his head is in the clouds—he’s just married a beautiful girl and he seems in charge of terrific mechanical works for the great Soviet. Nevertheless, he dreams—during the day, surely, as we never see him asleep—of Mars and its beautiful, vamping Queen. Mars here is represented via Constructivist sets, cellophane and cardboard costuming and a preference for a kind of airy concreteness—ancient-like, spacious sets of granite, windowless openings, tall lines of wires and panes of glass—and seems appealing simply because its inhabitants are clearly human and its stylings so much more pristine, vivid, and, dare we say, chic, than the 1921 in which the film is set.
[…] So Mars is discovered as just another Earth (shades of Żuławski’s sci-fi totalitarian allegory, On the Silver Globe), with 1:1 relationships not just of oppression but also of love. Our engineer even relives the tragic confrontation he had his wife again with the Queen, just as the freed Martian workers swarm and throttle the planet’s Elders. As in Vertigo, fantasies are projected into realities that are projected back into fantasies and it becomes impossible to decipher which came first.

Remember, this is still but in the engineer’s head. Which is hardly a it’s-all-a-dream narrative disappointment. Instead, we see pictures of the fantasia the Revolution inspired; an almost dangerous fantasia, because, as the soldier remarks (in the dream), he helped build Republics and now he’s just laying around. Aelita sees the heat of revolutionary fervor dissipating to the fading warmth of dreams (and dreams turned around and made grand by cinema); the supposed reality of the film is but the banality of the corrupt and corrupting capitalist neighbor, the bourgeois misunderstandings of a jealousy melodrama. Only a message from outer space re-inspires the delirious possibilities of new worlds to explore, upset, conquer—a socio-political aspiration inextricably tied, by our romantic engineer, to infatuation and lust. In a severe contradiction but no doubt one required for such a disquieting use of wish-fulfillment—our hero is essentially allowed to kill his wife, bed the Queen of Mars, and inspire a revolution—the engineer at the end renounces his real-world dreams of building a spaceship to travel to Mars. But who needs a spaceship in the real world when you can always build one in your dreams?


Richard Hildreth in the San Francisco Film Festival program notes:

Neglect belies the film’s popularity with Soviet filmgoers, its influence over the look of future science fiction films, and its psychological storyline, which resonates in films noir and in the work of filmmakers as diverse as Andrei Tarkovsky, Alfred Hitchcock, and David Lynch.
Tolstoy’s [source] novella is a romantic fantasy of space travel that features a decadent race of Martians descended from the survivors of ancient Atlantis. Protazanov’s film abandons the Atlanteans, making the science fiction secondary to a melodramatic representation of the harsh conditions Soviet citizens faced during the Civil War, a subject hardly broached in the novella. To meet the needs of the state, Protazanov depicts the class struggle and stirring images of the new nation building a future through engineering, toil, and big machinery. To help ensure the film’s success at home and abroad, Protazanov throws in a comic subplot, a romantic triangle, and a murder.
Exter’s costumes come alive when seen in motion. Exter’s designs for Aelita are remarkable for her adaptation to the monochrome palette of the black-and-white film stock. After bringing a riot of color to her cubist paintings (a form noted for its muted tones), she used a variety of textured industrial materials—aluminum, glass, acrylics, steel, etc.—to create a high contrast Cubo-Futurist image.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has some background on art director Alexandra Exter.


Ian Christie in his 1992 NFT program notes:

Aelita has enjoyed a shadowy career in the English-speaking West. While images of its futuristic sets and costumes have long been used in a variety of contexts, the actual film has been shown only recently and infrequently. In 1948 Thorold Dickinson wondered if anyone could remember seeing it back in the 20s! Why such neglect, given its striking images and fascinating theme?
Protazanov made it clear to his scenarists that he had no intention of merely illustrating Tolstoy’s Martian romp. Instead he proposed a framing story that had more to do with the confusion of everyday Soviet life to which he returned in 1923. Len’s NEP had restored a degree of private enterprise and the climate was thick with class and cultural conflict – all faithfully reflected in the resulting film. The Engineer Los (meaning ‘Elk’ in Russian) is far from the adventurer of Tolstoy’s romantic melodrama: he’s sensitive, neurotic and, while devoted to the Revolution, clearly has emotional problems to solve. Not the traditional ‘superfluous man’ of Russian liberal literature, nor yet the hearty hero of Socialist realism.
In fact, his split personality is reflected in a second character played by the same actor: Spirodonov, the ‘bad engineer’ and forerunner of later ‘saboteurs.’ Protazanov resisted any simple appeal to interplanetary heroics: contrary to most plot synopses, Aelita does not carry the revolution to Mars. Instead its journey is into ‘inner space’ as the unbalanced Los dreams of a romantic welcome on Mars. And the speculators and impoverished aristos who lurk in the shadows of this brave new world? Both Kuleshov’s and Eisenstein’s first Soviet features cast their counter-revolutionaries in exotic guise. Protazanov’s, one feels, are more believable and contribute to a better understanding of the NEP era – one not so far removed from the chaos of the Russian present.



Lisa K. Broad for Senses of Cinema:

While it is most widely remembered for being the first Russian science fiction film, Aelita is perhaps more interesting today as a document of the tumultuous period following the implementation of Lenin’s New Economic Program (NEP) and as an example of the popular Soviet cinema of the 1920s. The NEP, introduced in early 1921, ushered in a brief period of relative economic and social liberalism, which allowed for high-profile film productions like Aelita, and provoked both Bolshevik outrage and pre-revolutionary nostalgia. It also gave rise to a class of NEPmen who took advantage of official positions within the Soviet hierarchy to bribe and steal their way into secret fortunes. Early on in Aelita’s narrative we are introduced to NEPman Victor Erlich (Pavel Pol), who uses his connections with the housing authority to requisition a room in the house Los shares with his wife Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi). In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, Natasha accompanies Erlich to a secret high-society ball. The attendees arrive bundled up in hats, scarves, and long, drab coats, but once they enter the hall they gleefully cast them off to reveal chic 1920s hairdos and elegant evening clothes. Set against the elegant European-style ball scene, and the abstract Martian settings, the film’s documentary-style footage of contemporary Moscow is surprising and instructive. In one sequence, Los wanders through streets lined by waist-high piles of blowing snow. After Natasha’s checkpoint closes, she takes a job managing an orphanage, where we are privy to rows of infants tied into straight-backed chairs.
Increasingly suspicious of Erlich’s developing relationship with Natasha, Los retreats into his Mars fixation, even drawing up plans for a rocket that will take him into outer space. Meanwhile on Mars, Gol (Yuri Zavadsky) has designed a telescope, which looks like a mobile by Alexander Calder that will allow the Martians to observe life on nearby planets. A cut from Gol operating the machine reveals full screen images of: a busy city street at dusk; men riding camels in the desert; and military gunships. This sequence makes interesting use of the famous Kuleshov effect; shots of Aelita and Gol looking are intercut with images of exotic places. Essentially, it functions as a metaphor for new medium of cinema, which also shows us life in distant places – even Mars! Taking charge of the telescope, Aelita focuses in on an image of Los kissing Natasha. Aelita asks Gol to kiss her, “like they do on earth”. Suffused with a kind of frothy eroticism, the scenes on Mars are introduced as a projection of Los’ imagination and desire – it is unclear whether they are also to be taken as having an objective existence of their own.



Greg Ferrara selects some further intertitle highlights, for his blog Cinema Styles:



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