Saturday, 29 October 2016

Aelita Queen of Mars 1924 Soviet Sci Fi

Aelita, Queen of Mars, an early Russian Sci Fi film made by Yakov Protazanov (1881-1945) who'd worked in German and French film studios before returning to the Soviet in 1923, the year before Aelita was made.  Aelita thus exemplifies the ideals of the Soviet experiment, where dreams of modernity and progressive change flourished, briefly, before the Stalinist clampdown. Constructivism and Futurism, inspiring Eisenstein, and so many others.  This context matters, for it was the background to Shostakovich's opera The Nose (reviewed here).  The teenage Shostakovich is believed to have played piano at screenings of the film.  Although the plot is loosely based on a story by Tolstoy, Protazanov's film contrasts the reality of Soviet life in his time with a brilliantly exotic fantasy kingdom on Mars. 

Aelita lives in a palace designed in extravagant art deco angles with shards of reflective glass and strange perspectives. She wears a headdress of spikes, vaguely "Japanese", plays a fountain of light as if it were a harp and paints pictures with a shimmering wand. The Kingdom is ruled by The Elders, led by Tuskub, a malevolent-looking dictator, and Gor, a hunk known as the "Guardian of the Tower of Energy".  The soldiers are faceless robots whose movements are stylized and jerky  yet also vaguely reminiscent of the Ballets Russe.  Aelita's maid hops about in a cage-like dress, her movements  mechanical, though her personality is cheeky and vivacious.

Aelita's kingdom is so technologically advanced that it can send out radio messages to Earth.  At 6.27 CET time on 4th December 1921, a transmission is broadcast: "Anta Udeli Uta". No-one understand, except Engineer Los in Russia, who dreams of space travel and has drawn up plans for a trip to Mars. Los's best friend is Spiridnov, a wild-eyed intellectual, even more of a dreamer than Los. Significantly, Los and Spiridnov are played by the same actor. Los is newly married to Natasha, who is down to earth in every way. She is pursued by Erlich, a black marketeer who takes her to illegal speakeasys where people dance and drink as if the Old Days of  Tsardom had never faded.  She rejects him, but Los does not understand and goes away on a long business trip.  While Los is away, Spiridnov hides Los' spaceship plans in a hole behind a fireplace.When Los comes back from his trip, he thinks Natasha has been unfaithful and shoots her. As she lies in her coffin, Spiridnov appears.  Where's Los ? Los is building his space ship to escape, helped by Gussov, a cheerful Soviet soldier.  They have a stowaway, Kratsov, an inept bounty hunter who wants to arrest Los for murder and/or black marketeering, another sign that Los and Spiridnov might be two sides of a whole.

Aelita, meanwhile, has been watching Earth on Martian TV and sees Los and Natasha kiss. She's fascinated and rejects Gor, her suitor.  It's interesting that Aelita, although played by a female actress, is decidedly androgynous, her heavy makeup more masculine than feminine.  She's also unnaturally  flat chested, so perhaps there are other levels in this film the censors might have missed.  When Los and Gussov arrive on Mars, Aelita wants Los, though he's still in love with Natasha.  Gussov fools around with Aelita's cute maid, though he has a wife back in Russia.  The maid gets sent down to the dungeons for consorting with foreigners.  Gussov follows to save her, and rouses the prisoners to revolt.  "Freedom of speech put an end to thousands of years of slavery on Mars".  "It used to be like this in our country" cries Gussov. "October 25th, 1917" flashes  a subtitle Men are seen breaking their chains, beating weapons into sickles, placing sickles over hammers.  The Martian Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" is declared.  Fabulous battlescene between the soldier robots and the Proletariats, who have boxes for heads.  The Elders are routed. Aelita  says that she'll now rule, alone. "I don't buy that" says Los, "Queens can't run revolutions". Sure enough, she orders the army to shoot the mutineers.  Los pushes her off the steps and "she" turns into Natasha. Suddenly Los wakes up. The words "Anta Uteli Uta" ring in his mind. Then we see a workman pasting a poster for a brand of tyres with that slogan.  Suddenly Los is back on earth with Natasha, who's very much alive. He runs to the fireplace, snatches up his plans for space travel and throws them into the fire "That's enough for dreams!" he says "We have other things to worry about".

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