(1924) Directed by: Yakov Protazanov; Written by Aleksei Fajko and Fyodor Otsep; Based on the novel Aelita by Aleksei Tolstoy; Starring: Yuliya Solntseva, Igor Ilyinsky, Nikolai Tsereteli and Valentina Kuindzhi;
Available on DVD (from Flicker Alley) and Hulu Streaming
Rating: ** ½
“…both in Exter’s costumes and Rabinovich’s sets, industrial materials served a definite objective: they defined form in the absence of color…” – John Bowlt (from the essay “Down to Earth: Aelita Relocated,” by Ian Christie, excerpted from Inside the Film Factory, edited by Richard Taylor and Ian Christie)
Preparing for next week’s move may have left me exhausted, but my spirit remains untarnished, as I complete my submission, just under the wire, for the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon. First of all, I’d like to express my thanks to the one and only Fritzi from Movies Silently for hosting another outstanding celebration of film, and sponsored by the good folks at Flicker Alley. I chose this opportunity to expand my cinematic horizons and channel my Eastern European roots in one fell swoop, with the Soviet oddity, Aelita.
I’m still not sure what to think of Aelita after watching it a second time. It’s almost as if Yakov Protazanov wanted to make two separate films. On the one hand, it’s a drama about an engineer and his wife struggling to make ends meet amidst the stark backdrop of post-revolutionary Russia. On the other hand, it’s a fanciful space opera set in a stylized Martian landscape. The lavish production took a year to complete, and marked director Protazanov’s return to the U.S.S.R. Most of Aleksei Tolstoy’s novel was eschewed in favor of a more topical (reflecting life in the freshly minted U.S.S.R), and less fantastical approach. While most of the novel took place on Mars, the filmmakers chose to keep things back on Earth (Inside the Film Factory). The fantasy elements left in still provide an ample amount of eye candy for the unsuspecting viewer.
In the opening scene, a cryptic radio message, thought to have originated from Mars, is heard around the globe. Engineer Los and rocket scientist Spiridinov (both played by Nikolai Tsereteli) set to work building a means of reaching the red planet. Los is so consumed by his dream of voyaging to another world that he fails to notice his long-suffering wife Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi) is being courted by a shifty profiteer, Viktor Ehrlich (Pavel Pol). He subsequently flies into a homicidal rage when he suspects her of infidelity. Thrown into the mix is a subplot about a bumbling would-be detective, played by Igor Ilyinsky.
As confusing and thematically inconsistent as Aelita’s Earth scenes are, it’s hard to resist the Mars sequences, and the fanciful depiction of an alien civilization. The imaginative, expansive Russian modernist sets are defined by monochromatic elements, sharp angles and asymmetrical shapes. Alexandra Exter’s (who also worked on the set design) similarly bizarre costume designs compliment the sets perfectly. Although Exter cited The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as one of her influences, Aelita likely inspired many more films (e.g., the Flash Gordon serials, Metropolis, and Things to Come) with its impressive, albeit impractical look.
Defying an edict by the Martian ruler Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert), queen Aelita (Yuliya Solntseva) covertly uses a telescope to observe Earth and its inhabitants. She’s smitten by one particular human, Los, and dreams of one day seeing him in the flesh. Unfortunately, their eventual meeting doesn’t quite work out the way she hoped, as Los and his Earth companions help stage a rebellion (accompanied by some heavy handed imagery of a sword being beaten into a sickle) against Tuskub’s oppressive regime.
Although Aelita was a box office success, it was commonly regarded as an artistic failure for Protazanov, and criticized in its home country as “too western” with its grand scope (The Cinema of Russia and the Former Soviet Union, edited by Birgit Beumers). While this reputation seems a wee bit harsh, it’s tough to overlook some of the film’s deficits (SPOILER ALERT). Los is a questionable choice for a protagonist, on account of his attempted murder of Natasha and dream killing of Aelita. The fact that the movie falls back on the safety net of the “it was all a dream” (or more accurately, “it was all a daydream”) convention does little to mitigate the preceding scenes that established Los as a homicidal nutjob. For all the dreamers out there, Aelita ends on a depressing note, when Los throws the rocket plans into the fireplace, so he can devote his time to more Earthly pursuits (Stop daydreaming, comrade, and get back to work!). And don’t get me started about the mystery message, which turns out to have more mundane origins. Despite Aelita’s numerous trespasses, it’s worth a look for Exter’s wild designs and Yuliya Solntseva’s captivating performance as the title character. It’s also worth pointing out that this film was intended as popular entertainment, not fodder for stuffy film historians or silent film completists. Aelita provides a window into another time, a stylized snapshot of the political milieu of the period.