Mon
Mar 23 2009 10:25am
Ancient Rockets: Aelita, Queen of Mars

Look, I don’t want to hurt their feelings, but I didn’t order any exotic dancers....

Greetings, Comrades! This week’s feature is Aelita: Queen of Mars, glorious Soviet silent science fictional epic from 1924. Based on Alexei Tolstoy’s novel and directed by Yakov Protozanov, it was a smash hit with heroic Soviet workers everywhere in its day. Later, when its true message finally sank in on the Fearless Leader, it was banned and consigned to the reactionary outer darkness. Which is a shame, because Aelita is a lot of fun. 

It’s been called the first full-length film about space travel, but that’s arguable, since very little of the film actually deals with the whole space capsule business. In fact, most of the first hour is a series of propagandistic vignettes of heroic workers trying to rebuild Russia after the revolution. This sounds deadly dull but it’s actually sort of engaging, since it’s presented as a little soap opera following the Russian heroes (and a couple of backsliding villains) as they go about their daily lives. You can see at once why this was so popular; here the Russians are shown as they must have liked to imagine themselves, cheerfully working toward a better tomorrow in the face of present-day privation, united and uncomplaining. Sort of like a revolutionaries’ version of Mrs. Miniver or Since You Went Away.

Aelita opens with a nicely economical bit of storytelling. A mysterious message is telegraphed to receiver stations the world over. We see the Japanese receive it, puzzle over its three meaningless words, but do nothing. Next, a cigar-smoking imperialist British lackey immerses himself in a newspaper while his black telegraph operator takes down the message and hands it to him. He glances at the three words, then crumples the paper and tosses it aside. Now three Russian engineers receive the message. They don’t know what it means either,  but two of them, Los and Spiridinov, are convinced it’s a message from Mars, and they promptly begin designing a space ship that will take them to the Red Planet.

Materials to build it are a little thin on the ground, though, what with food and everything else being tightly rationed, so for a while the project remains a pipe dream. Enter a pair of  baddies, sort of counterrevolutionary versions of Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale. Yelena seduces Spiridinov and gets him to desert Russia. Erlich uses his smooth wiles (also white bread and black market chocolates) in an attempt to seduce Los’s wife. In a subplot, heroic soldier of the revolution Gusev falls in love with selfless revolutionary hospital nurse Masha.

Wondering when we’ll get to the science fiction bit? So was I.

But, at last, the point of view shifts to Mars and we get our first look at Aelita, bride of Tuskub, Ruler of Mars! And she’s... boy, she’s really... er... something. She appears to have three breasts. She sort of has that raccoon thing going that Daryl Hannah’s character painted on herself in Blade Runner. Aelita’s costumes, in fact, all the Martians’ costumes, are jaw-dropping constructivist metallic and glass ensembles. Your heart goes out to her maidservant Ihoshka, obliged to wear these steel spider-leg bloomers in which she walks bowlegged so as to avoid puncturing a femoral artery and still maintains a cheerful and impish demeanor. We learn that Aelita is two-timing King Tuskub with handsome Gor, Guardian of Energy, with whom she sneaks off for a somewhat chilly rendezvous at the Tower of Radiant Energy. Gor has invented a telescope with which events can be observed on neighboring planet Earth. Aelita demands to watch the Earthlings and sees distant Los and his wife locked in a passionate kiss. 

And here it is, B-movie fans: the original moment when a Space Woman is overwhelmed by the mating rituals of we Earth-creatures, and decides she must know more. Aelita wants Los, even though Los is one of those sad-faced Russians who really does resemble Dobby the House Elf. However, she can’t have him yet. There is still nearly an hour of drama on Earth before Los, Gusev and a comic detective manage to blast off and get to Mars.  Once there, Los falls into Aelita’s embrace and Gusev, like the heroic Bolshevik he is, rouses the Martian working class to overthrow the decadent monarchy and form a Martian Soviet Socialist Republic! Aelita switches sides and joins them as their leader! Ah, but can she be trusted?...

You may be thinking to yourself that Aelita’s plot borrows heavily here from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but in fact Aelita was made first. And, just as it’s leading you about where you thought it was going, the plot doubles back and twists upon itself in a startling manner. The casual viewer may fling the remote at the screen in disgust, but further reflection will reveal that Aelita’s message isn’t as straightforward as it appears, at all. You will want to watch it a second time to notice the subtext, or rather several subtexts. Suffice it to say there was a reason this film was later suppressed by Stalin’s censors.

I can only find one available version of Aelita: Queen of Mars, the print offered on DVD by Image Entertainment. It’s in reasonably good shape, though some scenes appear to have gone missing, most notably the iconic moment when Ihoshka seems to be flirting with the Court Astronomer. The DVD is available from Netflix but also can be viewed on demand at Amazon, if you just can’t wait to sample this masterpiece of post-revolutionary doublespeak. 

5 comments
Torie Atkinson
1. Torie
I was hoping you'd write about this one! Aelita is one of my favorites--visually it's just stunning, and who can argue with the red planet becoming the MSSR?

Also: the comparison to Dobby is spot-on and may haunt me.
Jason Henninger
2. jasonhenninger
So, this is the first time someone wanted to learn more of "this Earth thing called kissing"?

It's now on my Netflix queue. Thanks!
justinhowe
3. justinhowe
Yeah, this is a good one.
justinhowe
4. Mark Owings
Aelita was the last apparently still surviving silent sf movie that I had not seen -- and I would have to say it is easily the worst.

The review does not mention at all the way that it finally cheats the viewer.
Kage Baker
5. kagebaker
Would you really say it cheats the viewer? Without spoilers there's not a lot about which I can be specific, but I think you're missing something essential here.

On the surface Aelita is a standard piece of propaganda, the only kind of film that could possibly have been made in an oppressive state. But the trick ending throws everything that has gone before in a different light.

Does it encourage men to spread their ideology, or does it imply that the revolution has already been betrayed? Think about what the mysterious message turns out to mean, in actual fact. Who actually has the correct response to the message after all? And what does the film as a whole say about the reality of attitudes toward women in the perfect new post-revolutionary world? Or about Los's subconscious?

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