As a portrait of the early Soviet state, Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) is fascinating. As a film, less so. What makes it interesting is probably also what makes it not a great film. It’s the propaganda. In America, the closest thing to “state propaganda” was probably the moralizing epilogue which would occasionally be tacked on to pre-code films starting in the next five years or so—as though that would wipe an audience’s mind clean of the previous 60 – 80 minutes of extramarital sex, near or total nudity, and crime without punishment enjoyed by the film’s characters.
Naturally, all of what looks like fun in Aelita turns out to be capitalist evil—nice clothes, drinking, parties, edible food, even the cool Constructivist couture worn by Martians. Because Aelita is set in 1921, and the Communists will shortly be in control of what will become the Soviet Republic, most of the film is at pains to distinguish between good Communists and bad Russians. Our hero, and I use that word loosely, is newlywed Engineer Los (Nikolai Tseretelli). When a mysterious radio signal is heard all over the world, Los’s dreams of going to Mars kick into high gear. In a typical American film, the guy (it’s always a guy) with crazy dreams inevitably has the moral high ground, and his crazy dreams show humanity the way forward. In Soviet Russia (sorry, couldn’t resist), this is, of course, backwards. Individuals with dreams hold society back and lead to all sorts of immoral capitalist shenanigans (in this film, anyway).
Los engineers for the fledgling Soviet state, while his wife, Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi), works in what the translated titles refer to as an evacuation center for refugees from the war and demobbed soldiers arriving in Moscow. Yet Anta Odeli Uta, the radio signal heard ’round the world, calls to Los like a siren. As he works feverishly on plans for a spaceship, good Communist things go sideways.
Life in Moscow is becoming more communal by the hour, and soon evacuated bad Russians Erlikh (Pavel Pol) and his wife are sent to move in with Los and Natasha. Los is unreasonably jealous of Erlikh, a clandestine black marketeer, who flatters Natasha. Without the example of her upstanding husband, frequently away for work, Natasha weakens and goes to a clandestine party with Erlikh. Suddenly, there is a scene in which everyone is dressed fabulously, their stylish clothes revealed as they strip off their shabby but voluminous outerwear. Natasha removes her prehistoric Uggs (which look they’re made out of cardboard) to reveal some excellent, slinky pumps. Before she is utterly lost to depravity, however, she remembers what pathetic bits of cloth the evacuees often have in place of shoes. Overcome by guilt, she hurries from this den of iniquity, where people are drinking alcohol and eating good food and generally enjoying themselves, back to her dingy, overcrowded apartment and what I assume is a lot of cabbage. Unfortunately, Natasha has missed her husband, who has left on yet another business trip, further estranging the two. When he finishes his six-month gig in outer-wherever, the government sends him a thank-you note. Returning home, he finds his wife talking to Erlikh. It is obvious to Los that they are sleeping together. So our hero shoots her and buggers off to build himself a spaceship. (Don’t forget, he’s the good Russian.)
You might well be wondering, at this point, what the hell happened to Mars, which is, you know, in the title. There are few sequences on Mars, sadly, but they are something—wonderful visions of a Constructivist dystopia with cool names like the Tower of Radiant Energy. The clothes are, well, you can see the pictures. Unfortunately, although the fashion-forward Aelita may be a queen, she is not the ruler, as Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert), the ruler, likes to remind her. People on Mars are very frowny, if the two of them are anything to go by. Behind Tuskub’s back, she convinces Gor (Yuri Zavadsky), the civilization’s Guardian of Energy, to show her other worlds using his new gadget. When she spies the handsome Los, early on in the film, meeting Natasha, and sees them kiss, she turns to the hapless Gor and vamps, “Touch my lips with yours, like humans do, on Earth!” Apparently, there’s no kissing on Mars. But that’s only fair, because Martians are evil (if stylish) capitalists. They send a third of their workers into cold storage.
Los finally makes it to Mars, along with good Russian soldier Gusev (Nikolai Batalov) in drag (it’s a long story) and a detective who means to find Natasha’s murderer. The representative of law and order is presented to us as a laughable fellow whose dedication to holding someone accountable for a murder is obviously absurd. When this three-ring circus lands on Mars, what could happen but a bolshevik revolution, fueled by the stout-hearted Gusev. Los romances Aelita and the three of them free the workers, but at the last moment, Aelita betrays them. She tells the guards, in outfits clearly inspired by the 1987 version of Robocop, to open fire on the “insurgents.” The insurgents all look like they have televisions on their heads, by the way, as though they had wandered off the set of a Devo video. “Devo” is actually a pretty good description of the Martian aesthetic, created by art director Yuri Zhelyabuzhsky and costume designer Alexandra Exter. (The blog Teleport City has a great post on Aelita with lots of detail about its context and history, including the book it’s adapted from and who Exter was.)
I don’t want to ruin the whole plot for you, which, in any case would take a lot longer, and you’d get bored. But, I doubt I’m ruining anything when I tell you that our fine hero comes to his senses, and sees that, without the wife he murdered, “the only joy for [him] was the realization that he, too, could take part in the great work of building the new Russia.” All’s well that ends well, eh? That mysterious radio signal, Anta, Odeli, Uta, is finally revealed to be a capitalist plot—a publicity ploy created by a tire company, Anta Odeli Uta. All crazy dreams of exploring the universe have been patriotically squashed, and the film ends as Los burns his notes, stares heroically into the middle distance, and tells Natasha (yeah, turns out she’s not completely dead—maybe she was just mostly dead), “Enough of dreaming. A different, real kind of work is awaiting all of us!”
Aelita: Queen of Mars is disappointing if you’re looking for the first sci-fi film, as it is sometimes called. But it is absolutely worth a look if you’re interested in Russian/Soviet history, and the Martian sequences, particularly the uprising, are pretty fabulous. Watching the failed Martian revolution (to be fair, I bet it’s hard to pull off a revolution when you’ve just been released from a freezer), it’s easy to be reminded of the much greater Metropolis, which Fritz Lang will finish three years after Aelita is released. They’d make a great double-bill.
The Internet has, in its infinite wisdom, decided that all the best things about Aelita take place on Mars. And so, you’ll be hard pressed to find images of Los or Natasha, though they are the film’s central characters. What you will find are scads of images of the scowling Martians in their proto-Devo Constructivist gear. Enjoy.
This post is part of the awesome Russia in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by maven of all things silent, Movies, Silently. There are some fantastic posts about both famous Soviet/Russian films and the less-famous. Enjoy!