Aelita, Queen of Mars
by Jennifer Bryce
Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924) is billed as being the first Russian science fiction film. It was directed by Yakov Protazanov. A silent film, it was screened in Melbourne recently, thanks to the Australian National Film and Sound Archive, with a new musical score presented live by The Spheres, who are an experimental AV ensemble who explore the conflux of sound art, post rock and silent cinematics. Apparently early screenings in Russia were accompanied by Shostakovich playing his own score on piano. I would have preferred the whole 1920s deal as, on this occasion, I didn’t find the music of the Spheres helpful or memorable.
What I found most interesting was the 1924 fantasy of life on Mars and the relationship that this had to Leninist Russia, seven years after the Revolution. There is a useful, more detailed analysis of these aspects of the film at Senses of Cinema: http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/cteq/aelita-queen-of-mars/
The Martian sets and costumes are breath-taking (incidentally, they didn’t bother too much about a lack of oxygen on Mars), the sets designed by Isaac Rabinovich and Victor Simov, the costumes by Aleksandra Ekster. My view of a 1920s Russia full of peasants burdened with heavy manual work trudging through snow in inadequate shoes was moderated by this – and it didn’t just happen in fantasy-land; in Moscow, there was a ball scene and women abandoned their heavy coats and gumboots to reveal sumptuous gowns, chic hairdos and elegant footwear to be swirled around a glittering dance floor. . . Or was this really more of the fantasy?
The film is about a young man, Los, an engineer who dreams of travelling to Mars. In 1921, a mysterious wireless message is received at various stations. The text of the message is: Anta Odeli Uta and a colleague teases Los by suggesting that the message has come from Mars. This sends Los into a spin where he daydreams about Mars. Aelita, the queen of Mars has a telescope powerful enough to view earth – she sees him and falls in love with him.
In his dream, Los shoots his wife and builds a rocket ship in which he escapes to Mars with a friend and a stow-away. It doesn’t seem to take much time to get there. When they arrive, Tuskub, the king, orders them killed, ignoring Aelita’s pleas for their safety. On Mars aristocrats rule and slaves are confined underground and frozen and kept in cold storage when not required.
Los’s friend tells the slaves of his own country’s revolution and inspires a revolt. Tuskub is overthrown and Aelita takes command. But she instructs her soldiers to fire on the workers. Los is horrified and kills Aelita (who takes on the guise of his wife as he does so). Suddenly we are back on earth. There is a poster on a wall, it reads: The only tyres worth your money are… Anta Odeli Uta, so the provocative wireless message had been an advertisement! Los’s wife is alive and well. He promises to stop daydreaming about Mars and to go about working towards a good communist society. The film has been described as ‘a revealing embodiment of the aspiration and uncertainty that characterised Soviet life in the early 1920s’.
It was also influential on later futuristic movies such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and possibly even Flash Gordon.