Director: Yakov Protazanov
Starring: Nikolai Tseretelli, Valentina Kuindzhi, Pavel Pol, Yulia Solntseva, Konstantin Eggert, Nikolai Batalov
Words – Nathan Scatcherd
Aelita, Queen of Mars is a rare beast – a silent, dreamlike Soviet sci-fi romance, splitting its time between two distinct settings.
The first is set in contemporary Soviet Russia, examining the struggling marriage between a young man, Los (Tseretelli) and his wife Natasha (Kuindzhi). Natasha is relentlessly courted by a creepy interloper and Los is too wrapped up in daydreams – of visiting Mars and falling in love with its queen, the dazzling Aelita – to do anything about it. As they grow more distant, the daydreams begin to take over, and soon the film becomes a hallucinatory tale of doomed love and revolution on the red planet.
These sections of the film are a showcase for some wonderfully eye-catching set design by Isaac Rabinovich and Victor Simov, with suitably weird and angular costume design by Aleksandra Ekster.
Geometric space-tech and ornate Martian clothing all look appropriately otherworldly, and the haunted black and white visuals really exaggerate the classic silent film performances. Kuindzhi is particularly magnetic, expressing a multitude of emotions with a glance.
The film is based on the book by Aleksey Tolstoy, and its literary roots are in the film’s narrative, an ultimately fairly sprawling and ambitious tale of both individual emancipation and perhaps the unshackling of an entire planet.
Aelita is particularly Russian in how sombre and downbeat its brand of melodrama frequently is, and feels inherently stagey in a way which recalls the manner of a theatrical production. If that sounds like a knock on the film, it isn’t; the overall effect, of watching a particularly inventive stage play performed by actors who are engaging without even speaking a word, is a strange thrill. As an insight into Soviet cinema – both its formal standards and ultimately its ambitions – the film is a fascinating oddity.
To say more on ambition, Aelita is one of the first feature length films to focus on the concept of space travel.
It’s hard not to read it as a cinematic foreshadowing of the Soviet space program; an early onscreen precursor to the nation’s subsequent huge leaps forward in space exploration. The film really couldn’t have been made anywhere other than the Soviet Union, and it ultimately more than upholds the revolutionary ideals of the time. There is a scene of a man hammering a sickle into shape, then overlaying the two of them meaningfully, and there’s at least one speech about revolution. But for all its third act Communist Martian Party rabble-rousing, Aelita is ultimately a (twisted, and from a modern perspective… ickily resolved) love story, in which love is a conquering force, inspiring jealousy, violence, and sacrifice… but in the end, more warmth than there is on Mars.
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