Monday, July 20, 2015

Aelita: Queen of Mars (Mezhrabpom-Rus, 1924)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Aelita: Queen of Mars, a legendary Soviet Russian film from 1924 — one of those oddball movies that everybody who’s into the history of film, and especially the history of science fiction on film, has heard of but few people have actually seen. I got this on on a DVD of uncertain provenance — the box attributes the source to the Blackhawk Films collection (Blackhawk Films was a company in the 1960’s that sold 8 and 16 mm copies of classic silent — and some sound — films to home collectors in the age before VCR’s, DVD’s and cable movie channels, and they made a lot of cool stuff available, including virtually all of Chaplin’s pre-1918 output and most of the Laurel and Hardy shorts) but there’s a “Kino International Presents” title at the beginning which makes me think the makers of this DVD just copied it off a Kino videotape. (Aelita is not listed in Kino Lorber’s current DVD catalogue.) Aelita: Queen of Mars was a quite elaborate film, set mostly in the then-contemporary Soviet Union (though the titles carefully establish the date as 1921 instead of 1924, I suspect to indicate that economic conditions had improved since Lenin, in his New Economic Policy of 1921, had actually moved the Soviet Union away from pure socialism and towards a mixed economy, and therefore the horrible privations the people in the movie are going through were supposed to belong in the past) and only incidentally on Mars — though the stills everyone who’s read about this film has seen take place in the Martian fantasy sequences and feature Yulita Solntseva in the title role, with her hair cut severely short in the helmet-like bob later identified with Louise Brooks and with such a slim figure there are close-ups, especially in profile, where she looks like a boy. Her elaborate costume is a sort of cross between a sheath dress and a jumpsuit and she’s got bamboo stakes sticking out of her hair, and the actress playing her maid Ihoshka (Aleksandra Peregonets) is dressed even more weirdly, in a black outfit whose bamboo stakes are angular, fastened at the waist and the ankles and bulging out at the knees. (What purpose this preposterous accessory was supposed to serve remains a mystery, but it sure looks cool.)

What almost nobody who hasn’t actually seen Aelita knows is that those elaborate scenes on Mars are not part of the story reality; they’re simply the dreams (or Walter Mitty-esque daydreams — though this movie was made 15 years before James Thurber wrote “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) of the film’s male lead, Engineer Loss[1] (Nikolai Tsereteli). Loss is out of town a lot — he lives in Moscow with his wife Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi) but he’s frequently away for months on end fixing up power plants that had been destroyed or damaged during the four-year civil war that followed the 1917 Revolution. While he’s out of town — and actually even while he’s in town — Natasha is being cruised by Viktor Ehrlich (Pavel Pol), a former Tsarist official who got a position on the ration board set up by the Bolsheviks and is using that job to steal necessities like sugar and sell them on the black market. (It’s a fascinating irony that according to this film, made just seven years after the Revolution, Tsarist officials are shown worming their way into the Soviet bureaucracy and using their positions to profiteer. That also happened at the end of the Soviet Union, as the nomenklatura who had been running the state-owned enterprises often grabbed them for far less than they were worth when the post-Soviet Russian government privatized them, thereby becoming the super-rich, super-powerful “Oligarchs” who bedeviled both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin until Vladimir Putin finally started having them arrested and/or driven into exile.) There’s a Mrs. Ehrlich (N. Tretyakova), but we see very little of her and in any case Mr. Ehrlich is not about to let her existence get in the way of his attempts to seduce Natasha, which include plying her with gifts from his black-market connections and taking her to secret dances and parties where his 1-percent buddies hang out and enjoy such forbidden pleasures as caviar and wine — even though there’s a great scene where one of the guests at Ehrlich’s party spits out the wine and says, “This is just vinegar! Now in the old days … ” and director Yakov Protazanov dissolves to some shots of what it was like in the old days, with him and his cronies in a spectacular mansion, wearing fancy clothes and living it up while the proletarians and the peasants suffer.

What’s fascinating is that, even though there must have been some propagandistic intent behind Aelita, it doesn’t become obvious or preachy until the last reel; instead Protazanov and his writers (Aleksei Fajko and Fyodor Ozep, who later became a director himself, discovered Anna Sten and cast her in a German-language adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov which caught the eye of Sam Goldwyn and led him to sign her to a U.S. deal, adapting a novel by Aleksei Tolstoy, a distant relative of Leo Tolstoy who became a popular novelist in the Soviet Union) are quite unsparing in their depiction of the privations the central characters are going through and the bizarre bureaucracy that guides their lives. The descriptions of life in Soviet Russia in the early 1920’s tally with what I’ve read in novels as diverse as Ayn Rand’s We the Living and Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, and at least one scene — in which Loss is solemnly informed that he’ll have to give up the second room he has in the attic of his boarding house (which he’s been using for scientific experiments to perfect a rocket fuel that will overcome earth’s gravity and get him to Mars) because another tenant who doesn’t have a home at all needs it — couldn’t help but remind me of Mel Brooks’ marvelous sendup of the early Soviet bureaucracy in his little-known film The Twelve Chairs. It also reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984 and in particular his acid comment that the state of life in Oceania was like “a besieged city, where the possession of a lump of horseflesh makes the difference between wealth and poverty.” It’s fascinating that a film whose reputation is as an early science-fiction effort should be more interesting when it takes place on earth — and particularly Moscow — in its own time, but the science-fiction elements take place only in the mind of Loss, who to overcome his personal frustrations — especially his romantic ones — has invented this elaborate fantasy of Aelita; her father Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert), the king of Mars; and a heavy-duty class struggle in which the Martian workers are literally kept in suspended animation, frozen on ice in great refrigerators, so they don’t have to be paid when their services are not needed. The scenes of class oppression and struggle on Mars so closely parallel the ones on Earth in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, made three years later, it seems almost certain Lang and his scenarist (and then-wife) Thea von Harbou had seen Aelita and were deliberately ripping it off. At the same time the influence between Russian and German filmmakers probably went both ways because the stylized sets of Aelita can’t help but recall The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — a film which was just five years old when Aelita was made and was influencing filmmakers all over the world.

Two-thirds of the way through the movie Loss comes home from his latest assignment bringing a power plant in the sticks back on line and sees the shadows of Ehrlich and Natasha embracing and kissing. He goes berserk and shoots at his wife, then flees and assumes the identity of a friend of his named Spiridinov (though there are scenes where they both appear,’s credits list Nikolai Tsereteli as playing both Loss and Spiridinov, and it’s quite possible he was doing the Lon Chaney, Sr. thing and playing a dual role in which one of his characters would impersonate the other), who supposedly left the Soviet Union and exiled himself to the West, but — it turns out at the end — was really murdered by Ehrlich. Loss flees by getting into his spacecraft and, with his friend Gusev (Nikolai Bataloff) — a Red Army veteran who was in a military hospital being treated for what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and who fell in love with his nurse, Masha (Vera Orlova) — the two travel to Mars. Only there’s a third man on board, Kravtsov (Igor Ilynsky), a police officer wanna-be who thinks if he can solve Natasha’s murder he’ll be given a job as a detective. Kravtsov stows away on the Mars flight, and for the last 20 minutes we finally get an interplanetary action sequence: Aelita, who’s seen Loss through a series of prisms invented by a Martian scientist as a sort of telescope, has been in love with him even before he arrives, and when his ship is about to land she kills her father Tuskub because he wants the Martian military to exterminate the out-of-planeters while she, of course, wants Loss spared so she can have a torrid affair with him. Gusev manages to get the workers on Mars to rebel before one-third of them get refrigerated — in the film’s most heavy-handed propaganda scene, he even forges a sickle and combines it with the hammer he used to make it to form the Soviet symbol — and Aelita announces that she will lead the revolution herself to overthrow the Council of Elders. Even Loss doesn’t like the idea of a queen leading a revolution (I suspect the writers may have been thinking of French King Louis XVI’s short-lived attempt to co-opt the 1789 Revolution against him by proclaiming himself “the first revolutionary”), and in the end there’s a chaotic storming-the-Martian-palace scene until … Loss comes to, it turns out it was all a dream, and he’s not in legal jeopardy after all because he merely wounded Natasha, he didn’t kill her. Instead they reconcile and Kravtsov finally makes his bones as a detective by arresting Ehrlich for the murder of the real Spiridinov.

What makes Aelita unusual is that it’s not only a weird mix of science fiction, socialist realism and soap opera, but Protazanov (the only Russian filmmaker who did important work on both sides of the Revolution; he left during the Civil War and settled in France, but the Soviet film industry brought him back to make this movie and he continued to work in his native land until 1943, when he made his last film, Adventures in Bokhara; he died, ironically, on August 9, 1945, the same day as the explosion of the second U.S. atom bomb over Nagasaki, Japan) and his writers are clearly more interested in the terrestrial scenes than the science-fictional ones. At the same time, Aelita has the usual Russian predilection for romantic angst — I can’t think of another science-fiction film built so strongly about a dysfunctional relationship until another Russian production, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris (in which the hero — played, as here, by a rather homely but not unattractive actor — is stationed on a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, whose sentient ocean sends him a replica of his previously dead wife, but he makes the same mistakes with her he made back on Earth when she was still normally alive), nor one with this much emotional turmoil. If you want a science-fiction film from the silent era that deals with Mars travel in the way we’d expect, the 1918 Danish Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars) is far closer than Aelita — but Aelita remains fascinating not only in its own right but for the films it influenced, including Metropolis, the Flash Gordon serials and even (in the character of the comic-relief stowaway) the 1960’s TV show Lost in Space.

[1] — That’s how it’s spelled on the titles to this film, though and other sources spell the character’s last name “Los.” Blackhawk Films did some wonderful work preserving silent films and making them available, but they weren’t always that cautious when it came to their titles.