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This is called the first Soviet science fiction film because of its "futuristic" sets on Mars, although most of it takes place in Moscow. The movie is set at the beginning of the NEP (New Economic Policy) in December, 1921. A mysterious radio message is beamed around the world, and among the engineers who receive it are Los, the hero, and his colleague Spiridonov. Los is an individualist dreamer. Aelita is the daughter of Tuskub, the ruler of a totalitarian state on Mars in which the working classe are put into cold storage when they are not needed. With a telescope, Aelita is able to watch Los. As if by telepathy, Los obsesses about being watched by her. After some hugger-mugger involving the murder of his wife and a pursuing detective, Los takes the identity of Spiridonov and builds a spaceship. With the revolutionary Gusev, he travels to Mars, but the Earthlings and Aelita are thrown into prison by the dictator. Gusev and Los begin a proletarian uprising, and Aelita offers to lead ... Written by
Fiona Kelleghan <email@example.com>
"Aelita" was screened as part of the National Film Theatre's science fiction season, but I can't help fearing that anyone who came to see it in the expectation of Martian adventures would probably have been very disappointed. (Edit: having read a selection of IMDb reviews, I gather this was all too correct, alas...) It certainly wasn't what I was expecting, but I actually enjoyed it a great deal for what it is: basically, an ordinary domestic drama of life in the undernourished, overcrowded post-war Moscow of 1921, with its black-marketeers, buffoons and ambitious dreamers. Intercut with this are the protagonist's imaginations of a stylised, balletic Mars, where the wilful figurehead Queen becomes fascinated with this alien Earthman she has never met; the more frustrating his day-to-day life becomes, the more he takes refuge in these plans and visions, and finally the two worlds become mingled entirely as he seeks escape in interplanetary flight.
The obvious comparisons to make are with Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" and H.G.Wells' "Things to Come"; I have to say that I actually found "Aelita" as visually inventive in its science-fiction sections as either of these -- and considerably more enjoyable. It has the human dimension and the humour that both of the former worthy sagas lack; for example, the soldier Gussev is obliged to turn up at the last minute for blast-off wearing women's clothing, because his wife has locked up his own equipment in an attempt to keep him from making the trip! And it benefits from the well-worn tactic of introducing recognisably contemporary characters into its alien setting to serve as audience identification figures; the dream-structure also allows it to get away with a good deal in the way of events that seem oddly arbitrary or clichéd at the time, while explaining them later. With hindsight I suspect that some of the revolutionary grandiloquence we laughed at was actually intended to be ridiculous (Protazanov had been a successful pre-revolutionary director who had only just been induced to return to Soviet Russia, and there is a striking sequence in "Aelita" where characters hark back wistfully to the 'old days'): the film has a good Soviet moral, but not the one you are led to expect, and it knows how to deflate the bubble of wild fantasy.
Nikolai Tsereteli and Vera Kuindzhi make an attractive and sensitive leading couple as the engineer and his wife, although the latter suffers from the limitations of the orthochromatic film stock of this era which tends to bleach out blue eyes altogether, to occasionally grotesque effect. Pavel Pol is also impressive as Erlich, the agreeable con-man who is billeted on the couple, while Igor Ilyinsky and Nikolai Batalov provide comic relief without becoming tedious.
The space technology shown has a definite air of Jules Verne, but take-off is effectively suggested using blurring camera views rather than extensive model work, and the characters stumble from their ship on landing in a convincing (and concealing) cloud of dust -- although there is an impressive fiery splashdown in the alien city. The Martian interior settings are deliberately conceived in theatrical terms, with the Martian characters moving in balletic mime that contrasts with the down-to-earth approach of the humans when they arrive, and there are some eerie scenes of the comatose workers being stacked for storage; the overseers with whips, on the other hand, are rather crudely prosaic. Some of the intertitles in the Martian sections come across as rather stilted, although it's hard to known how much of this is a problem with translation from what is presumably high-flown Russian. I did wonder if there were intertitles missing earlier on, as at some points the transitions seemed extremely abrupt.
For this performance a minimalist live accompaniment was provided by the appropriately named group Minima in a modern idiom which worked surprisingly well not only with the visions of Mars but with the 1920s Moscow setting. For my own part, even at the moments when I felt that the film really had gone too far for credibility I still found myself well-disposed towards it as a whole; when it subsequently proved to unwind itself to a neat conclusion, I felt pleasantly vindicated. I had heard that despite the subsequent 'socialist realist' image, much silent Soviet 'domestic' drama is in fact very good, and on the basis of this film this genre definitely seems worth a look. Lovers of ray-guns (although these do figure) and space adventure, on the other hand, will probably feel short-changed -- as, apparently, did the original critics, although I'm glad to say that this did not prevent the film from being a box-office smash at the time!
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