Yakov Protazanov’s 1924 film, Aelita, begins in December of 1921 with the worldwide transmission of a cryptic message. An iris revealing a set of powerlines is followed by a quick cut to an image of an electric current dancing between two wires. The next sequence reveals scientists and military men in different regions of the world – the Far East, the Middle East, and finally Russia – analysing a transmission that reads: “Anta… Odeli … Uta”. This scene, which serves as a prologue to the larger film, combines images of high-speed technology with foreign views to create an atmosphere of mystery and anticipation. As the narrative progresses, Engineer Los (Nikolai Tsereteli) – the film’s hero – will become increasingly obsessed with decoding the meaning of the message, which he believes to originate from Mars.
Beginning on 19 September 1924, real-life residents of Moscow began receiving the same message through the Pravda newspaper. Around the same time, Kinogazeta ran a notice reading: “The signals that are being received constantly by radio stations around the world – Anta… Odeli… Uta… – have at last been deciphered! What do they mean? You will find out on 30 September at the Ars Cinema.” (1) The lavish marketing campaign launched by Mezrabpom-Rus Studio in support of Aelita involved high-concept publicity stunts and an extravagant premiere gala for which the Ars Cinema was decorated in the manner of the Constructivist, Egypto-cubist Martian Palace designed for the film by Aleksandra Ekster and Isaak Rabinovich (2). An oft-recounted anecdote has it that the premiere was so overrun with moviegoers clamouring for tickets that Protazanov himself was unable to gain entrance. The extent of Aelita’s popular success was nearly equivalent to that of its critical failure. “No other film of early Soviet cinema was attacked as consistently or over so long a period as Aelita. From 1924 to 1928, it was a regular target for film critics and for the many social activists who felt that the film industry was not supporting Soviet interests.” (3) The polarised reception that greeted Aelita is strangely fitting, insofar as the film itself is fraught with contrasts and dichotomies.
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.
Nearly driven mad by his growing suspicion of Natasha’s infidelity, Los confronts her with a gun. Fearing he has killed her, Los flees and begins to make plans for his trip to Mars. At this point, we are introduced to Kratsov (Igor Ilyinsky), the amateur detective who hopes to solve Natasha’s murder, and inadvertently stows away on the rocket along with Los and Comrade Gussev (Nikolai Batalov), a Bolshevik soldier home from the front. To the already heady mixture of technological/erotic fantasy and domestic melodrama, the Kratsov character adds a note of broad physical comedy (4). When the ship arrives on Mars, Aelita and Los finally share a kiss, while Gussev delivers a speech to the Martian workers kept prisoner underground. His worlds are illustrated with a sequence of allegorical inserts: a chained man; a flaming torch; and “October 25, 1917” written in fire. Having created, “a Martian Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”, the workers smash through the bars surrounding the underground city and storm the palace. As the workers are celebrating their victory Aelita betrays them, ordering the army to open fire. Her actions uphold Comrade Gussev’s belief that members of the ruling class cannot be trusted (as well as Los’ suspicions regarding the duplicitous nature of women). As Los and Aelita struggle atop of a staircase, he sees her transformed into Natasha, before pushing her to her death.
The next cut reveals a close-up of the Martian message, inscribed on a poster that reads: “The only tyres worth your money are… Anta Odeli Uta.” In an amusing convergence of art and life, the message from Mars turns out to be a publicity stunt. Los wakes from his trance and returns home to find Natasha alive and well. He vows to put aside his dreams of space travel and devote himself to creating a communist reality. In identifying the space voyage (and perhaps the whole Martian narrative) as Los’ fantasy, Protazanov’s film departs from the original story by Aleksei Tolstoy. Contemporary critics argued that the use of the dream device, which Protazanov employed frequently in his films, in combination with the melodramatic adultery/murder plot, robbed the Martian communist revolution of its ideological significance (5). While Aelita does uphold basic Soviet values, it seems ultimately to privilege the more moderate goal of reconstruction – both national and romantic – over the dream of universal revolution. In this way, whether valorised or vilified, Aelita stands as a revealing embodiment of the aspiration and uncertainty that characterised Soviet life in the early 1920s.
- Ian Christie, “Down to Earth: Aelita Relocated”, Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russian and Soviet Cinema, ed. Richard Taylor and Ian Christie, Routledge, New York, 1991, p. 82.
- The symbolic structure of the Martian set – the rulers lounge above while the workers toil below – is thought to have inspired the expressionist design of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927).
- Denise J. Youngblood, Movies for the Masses: Popular Cinema and Soviet Society in the 1920s, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992, p. 110.
- Protazavov fashioned a similar mixture of physical comedy and melodrama in his 1920 film L’angoissante aventure (Agonizing Adventure), but in the earlier film both modes were united in the astounding performance of Ivan Mozzhukhin.
- Youngblood, p. 109.
Aelita/Aelita: Queen of Mars/Revolt of the Robots (1924 USSR 100 mins)
Prod Co: Mezhrabpom-Rus Dir: Yakov Protazanov Scr: Aleksei Fajko, Fyodor Otsep, based on the novel by Aleksei Tolstoy Phot: Yuri Ahelyabuzhsky, E. Shoneman Set Des: Sergei Kozlovsky, Aleksandra Ester, Isaac Rabinovich, Victor Simo
Cast: Yuliya Solntseva, Igor Ilyinsky, Nikolai Tsereteli, Nikolai Batalov, Vera Orlova, Valentina Kuindzhi, Pavel Pol, Konstantin Eggert, Yuri Zavadsky, Aleksandra Peregonets