Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924)

"Anta Odeli Uta"

These are the mysterious words received by radio transmission of unknown origin by stations all over central Europe. Few are piqued by this coded message except the Soviet engineer Loss, who dreams and works on building a craft that can voyage to Mars... Where he thinks the transmission may be from.

Meanwhile on Mars, the Keeper of Energy has developed a telescope that can peer all the way down to the surface of the neighbouring planet. Panic-stricken with the implications, the ruler of Mars demands that this be kept a secret from the populace. However, his wife, Queen Aelita, finds out about the discovery and demands that she be allowed to look upon this alien world of Earth. She does... Seeing the height of 1920's European civilization and falling in a distant love with Loss.

1924's Russian Expressionist Aelita: Queen of Mars is best remembered today as one of the earliest Science Fiction films. Its echos ring loud through the 1920's and 30's, with its strange, angular Martian palaces informing such films as Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The strange thing is, the Sci-Fi content only occupies a short fraction of the full screen time.

The vast majority of Aelita is a look on the complicated way of Russian life in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I. In particular, we track the lives of Loss and his wife and their circle of acquaintances through their trials and tribulations. There are conflicting strains of approval and disapproval running through the picture, as we see characters cheating the system for bags of sugar and being found out, railway cars and checkpoints full of destitute refugees in their own homeland, and duplicitous marital and extramarital shenanigans culminating in murder most foul.

This pro- and con- approach is articulated most clearly in the Martian sequences, when Loss finally achieves his goal in the last third of this two-hour epic. Life on Mars is highly stratified, with the ruling class riding on the backs of the enslaved underclasses. The Martian monarchs hold the power of life and death over their minions, including freezing the life forces of a full third. To cement the association, they even appear as futuristic Egyptians, whose silver and celluloid costumes recall the heyday along the Nile among the overlords of the Hebrews.

For the sake of Aelita - who both swoons for the Earth-man's kisses and opposes the tyrannical rule of her husband - and as a good, honest Soviet commrade, Loss leads a revolt of the working classes. Unfortunately for him, while Aelita opposes her husband's tyranny, she has no problem whatever with her own. The alien proletariat are soon suppressed by the soldiers now loyal to Aelita, but all works out for the best in the twist ending. Nevertheless, there is a provocative critique as the rulers are overthrown, and new rulers rise up out of the revolutionaries. Perhaps that is why the film was sent into the KGB's lockers for so long a season.

The Science Fiction portions, once they finally get around to them, are quite smashing. At least, they are a sumptuous aesthetic feast. It's just quite a pronounced journey to get to them amidst the Soviet soap operatics. Economic use of film is not this movie's strong suit, and it could have abbreviated a good half of the Earthbound plot, if not more. One almost wishes to do the unthinkable and edit Aelita down so as to bring the Sci-Fi elements into greater prominance while pacing faster through the rest. That is, of course, if the Sci-Fi aspects are those which one considers to be of the most significance. No doubt there is a greater artistic integrity to the full picture, but if the aesthetics are more your concern, then watch the first half hour and skip ahead to the last half or third of Aelita: Queen of Mars.


Jo said...

This is an incredibly interesting blog, thanks a lot for all your work here.

Cory Gross said...

Thank you very much! I'm glad you enjoy it!