Silent Science Fiction movies are understandably dominated by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) which is a truly astounding piece of German Expressionist film. Two years before the Soviet director Yakov Protazanov, made Aelita, Queen of Mars, based on the novel of the same name by the writer Alexei Tolstoi. While not on the same level as Metropolis (which it influenced) it is still a ground-breaking movie which, for a long time, was very hard to get hold of as it was suppressed for many years by the Soviet party. Essentially Aelita is a Communist, Constructivist science fiction film remarkable for its outlandishly beautiful visuals. Here’s a still showing two Martians in costumes designed by Aleksandra Ekster, to give you a flavour.
Aelita was made during a little window of artistic freedom between the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the rise of Socialist Realism as the official art movement of the Communist Party towards the end of the 1920s. When we think of Communist art (or for that matter, art under any dictatorship) we tend to assume that it’s nothing but drearily realistic paintings or films of happy workers, tractors and factories. Yet in the beginning Realism was regarded as corrupt and bourgeois by Marxist writers and artists. Realism, typified by writers like Emile Zola, merely showed you the details of external appearances, and concealed the real economic relationships in society.
Early Marxist and Socialist artists in Russia wanted to create a new type of art that a) revealed the true nature of the class struggle and b) glorified the idea of doing physical stuff to further the revolution and construct a new society. From this came the art movement Constructivism. On the outside Constructivism looks a lot like Futurism (which, ironically, was associated with the Italian Fascist movement). It’s full of images of machines, factories, geometric design, bright colours and posters with bold typography. It was art as a practical component of society, rather than something to be looked at in a gallery, and it was part of the Agitprop movement that would bring the message of the revolution to the people.
The story of Aelita is quite simple. The film begins by showing the day to day struggles of a small group of people trying to make a living in post-revolution Russia, dealing with the petty corruption of newly appointed officials. This was a double-edged sword to start with. Dictatorships will often encourage the exposure of local corruption as a way of marshalling people on their side, but then get very twitchy when those people start hunting for it closer to home. The main character is the engineer Los who, unbeknown to him, is being watched by the Martian Queen Aelita through an enormous telescope. He journeys to Mars where Aelita falls in love with him. Together they lead a revolution against the corrupt leaders of the red planet.
The scenes on Earth are straightforward and the story is rather dull melodrama. However, this part does give a fascinating glimpse of life in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution. The scenes on Mars, on the other hand, are fascinating for the stunningly beautiful designs of the sets and costumes. The clothes and hairstyles of the Martians are dominated by geometric designs (including a great pair of articulated baggy trousers) so at times they seem to merge in with the abstract landscapes behind them. This is emphasised by the use of tableau vivant shots, where, for a brief second, the actors freeze into poses like a living picture. My favourite part is when Los ends up in the worker’s underworld where the guards wear what look like tractor scoops on their heads.
Aelita is a hard watch in parts, the first bit drags on somewhat, but its worth viewing for the scenes on Mars. It’s also good to compare it with Metropolis to see the difference in styles between a Constructivist SF film with a revolutionary view of the future, and a German Expressionist one which sees all class differences resolved with an ‘oh go on then’ handshake between worker and boss at the end.
The odds were stacked against Aelita. It showed that post-Revolution Russia was not all a bed of roses. Its focus on the mental torment of Los was bourgeois and individualist, and Constructivism was replaced by Soviet Realism. Stalin, not known for his finer artistic sentiments, wanted realistic films of Soviet Heroes and that was that. Aelita, to all intents and purposes, disappeared until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Happily, you can now watch it on YouTube by going here. The 1999 DVD version is out of print but can be picked up from various online sellers.