Aelita abides. Rarely seen, it’s known mostly from photos featuring oddly-garbed women posing amid disorienting geometric shapes. Foreign distributors saddled it with the embarrassing subtitles “Queen of Mars” or “Revolt of the Robots.” In 1929, Aelita was described by the New York Times as “far more interesting to read about than to gaze upon.” Later descriptions rarely delve deeper than this, from Future Tense by John Brosnan in 1978: “[I]n Russia, science fiction was being used for a much more serious purpose—to spread the message of Marx to Mars.”
Faint praise from later generations added to the film’s burial mound that was first formed by Soviet critics like Anatoli Goldobin, who wrote in 1925: “The much-talked-about Aelita was received by worker audiences in the provinces with considerable doubt as to its usefulness.” By 1948, the film had taken on chimerical characteristics. British filmmaker and critic Thorold Dickinson wrote, “It would be interesting to meet someone who has actually seen Aelita.” This 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. Musician Dennis James, hoping to spark a revival for Aelita in 1992, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the film is “a picture window into Soviet society when Utopian goals were considered positive things.” James then premiered a new score featuring the organ and the first electronic musical instrument, the theremin, created in 1920 by Russian inventor Lev Sergeivich Termen. Some 86 years after its initial release, Aelita still waits to be acknowledged for its importance in cinema history.
The film’s script is based on a 1923 novella by Aleksey N. Tolstoy, a distant cousin of War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy. While both stories are set after the Bolshevik Revolution, the film, unlike the novel, is primarily concerned with the Russian Civil War (1917–1923), which caused famine and displacements. The collapsed economy led revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin in 1921 to establish the New Economic Policy (NEP), a capitalist mini-economy within the Communist state. Relaxed state control of some industries created a profit incentive, freeing hoarded capital and boosting living standards, but also encouraging graft and corruption.
Film studios were not under direct state control, although movies were expected to conform to revolutionary ideals. Flush with cash from a German fund that hoped to support a global workers’ revolution through cinema, the Moscow-based Mezhrabprom-Rus studio planned Aelita as a giant production, rivaling American and German epics. The noted Cubo-Futurist painter Alexandra Exter was hired to design the Martian costumes. To direct this futuristic epic, the studio looked to Russia’s cinematic past.
Director Jakov Protazanov was one of pre-Revolutionary Russia’s top film directors. Born in 1881 to a Muscovite merchant family, Protazanov was introduced to the theater at an early age by his mother, an educated woman who affected Continental sophistication by speaking French rather than Russian. An idle bourgeois at the age of 20, Protazanov toured Europe on a small inheritance. After visiting the Pathé film studio in Paris, he decided to make a career in movies. Returning to Moscow in 1907, he worked as an interpreter at movie studios, using his knowledge of French to communicate with camera operators from France and Germany. In 1911, he wrote and directed his first film, A Convict’s Song. By 1919, he had directed 78 films, mostly for Moscow’s leading producer, Iosif Ermol’ev. Fleeing the Civil War, Ermol’ev moved his studio first to the Ukraine, then to Paris in 1920. Protazanov followed him, directing two films in Yalta, five in Paris, and one in Berlin. With the Civil War winding down and the NEP in place, Protazanov accepted Mezhrabprom-Rus’s invitation to make films in the Soviet Union.
Its producers intended that Aelita draw worldwide attention to Soviet cinema and make Mezhrabprom-Rus an international studio, like Germany’s Ufa and France’s Pathé. As a Soviet film, Aelita was also meant to support the goals of the Bolshevik Revolution. These purposes proved incompatible. The politics of both Protazanov and Tolstoy were considered suspect—despite their embrace of Communist ideals upon their return to Russia—as both had fled the country following the revolution.
Tolstoy’s 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.
Thanks to the still images reprinted in textbooks and science fiction magazines, Aelita is remembered mostly for Exter’s Martian designs. Born in 1882 in Kiev, Ukraine, Exter was a leader of the European avant-garde. A colleague of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Fernand Léger, she created a unique “cubist style distinguished by a remarkable variety of color,” according to art historian Georgii Kovalenko. She designed costumes and sets for Alexander Tairov’s Kamerny Theater in Moscow, including his 1917 presentation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. “Skillful lighting made the geometric forms vibrate, giving an impression of floating,” wrote art historian Andrei Nakov. “The décor for Salomé produced a strange monumentalism of dramatic tonality. The new pathos of the ‘machine age’ was born.” Exter “insisted on the need for the costumes to interact organically with the sets or backdrops,” Kovalenko wrote. After her work with Tairov, she collaborated with choreographer Bronislava Nijinska and taught stage design at the Academie Modèrne in Paris.
Although Exter’s costumes appear stiff and awkward in still photographs, they 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.
Aelita was promoted like no Soviet film before it. Leaflets announcing its premiere were dropped from airplanes over Moscow. The expense of the film was highlighted in publicity material, which boasted, for example, that 22,000 meters of film were exposed for the movie that ran 2,841 meters when complete—this at a time when other filmmakers were splicing together scraps of unexposed film to make their movies. Although popular at the box office, Aelita incurred the wrath of the formalists (director and film theorist Lev Kuleshov described it as “the blind alley of pre-revolutionary cinema”) and the proletarians (the newspaper Kinonedelya called it “alien to the working class”).
Protazanov survived the criticism and kept directing films until 1943, two years before his death. He astounded his critics by crafting three faithfully Soviet films following Aelita: His Call (1925), The Forty-First (1927), and Don Diego and Pelageya (1928). Film historian Denise J. Youngblood credits Protazanov with keeping “alive the tradition of the narrative entertainment film.”
Presented at SFSFF 2009 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer and Theremin, and Mark Golstein on Buchla Lightning