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  • Writer's pictureJulia Sumzina

Aelita (1924): the Soviet cinema on the edge of epochs and styles

I have analysed many films as a journalist but this article I wrote for my studies in Åbo Akademi University, there was a course dedicated to the propaganda in the Soviet cinema. For this course I wrote three articles about four Soviet and post-Soviet films, all of them are belonging to the "art-cinema" and have some kind of decorative and surrealistic settings. All of them are looking at the real events and epochs in artistic sense. Let's start with Aelita (1924) by Yakov Protazanov.

Early Soviet cinema went from the pre-revolutional silent cinema in the decadent style to the avant-garde experiments of the new era. The “new cinema” was the most effective tool to bring the new Soviet ideology to the people and it was concentrated on propaganda. At the same time it was developing without being isolated from the rest of the world. It contained some typical traits of the cinema of the 1920s including theatricality, some affectation and a touch of Art Nouveau cinema as well as the new ideas, new heroes and new techniques, for example, the editing techniques of Sergei Eisenstein or Dziga Vertov. The Battleship Potemkin by Eisenstein, released in 1925, became one of the most outstanding films of the era of silent cinema, promoting the ideas of the triumph of the proletariat. Dziga Vertov's films also became world famous and influenced the work of future generations. Another outstanding example of the Soviet cinematic production is Aelita (1924) (also known as Aelita: Queen of Mars) by Yakov Protazanov which was the first soviet fantastic film and probably the first feature-length film about a space flight.

Aelita is a classical early Soviet fantastic film based on the novel of the same name by Aleksey Tolstoy. The plot is developing around Los, an engineer, and his relationships with his wife, colleagues and his fantasies about a space flight to Mars. All this is turning into a romantic drama in his dreams. This stylish film with a lot of grotesque traits contains a propaganda of the world revolution which was the main idea in early Soviet ideology.

Also it influenced some later films which followed the ideas or the aesthetics of Aelita, even two worldwide famous German films from the 1920s Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Woman in the Moon were probably influenced by Protazanov’s work.

It is interesting to see the three “worlds” in Aelita: a pre-revolutional “bourgeois world” here is mixed with the new era of early Soviet life and the dream about the world revolution; also Mars is shown as a futuristic world with the traits of Antiquity.

The “old” world ashes and decadence played an important role in the early Soviet art in the 1920s. In Aelita the viewer can see a negative portrayal of the bourgeois lifestyle through feasting, adultery and theft in the life of Victor Erlich (Pavel Pol), a sugar profiteer, whose courtship of the wife of engineer Los is obsessive and dishonest. Simultaneously with this decadent lifestyle, the viewer feels the manners and personality type of the engineer Los (Nikolai Tseretelli) himself, his wife Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi) and Spiridonov (also played by Nikolai Tseretelli), all of them are between two worlds: the old “bourgeois” and the new “revolutionary” ones, obsessed with discoveries, but still not denying romance of "belle epoque." There was used the music by Alexander Scriabin who died before the October Revolution, by Igor Stravinsky whose style was very suitable for avant-garde cinema, but who was already living in exile and Alexander Glazunov who stayed in the new Soviet state after the revolution but emigrated in the end of the decade.

The director himself, who was actively filming before 1917, transferred the atmosphere of pre-revolutionary cinema into the era of the avant-garde. His “new era” cinema shows the new Soviet citizens in all their grotesque diversity: from genteel engineers who dreamt of discovering new worlds to the narrow-minded Red Army soldier Gusev (Nikolai Batalov) whose main idea is the Revolution itself, his wife Masha, a simple Soviet nurse, and the servicing citizen Kravtsov (Igor Ilyinsky), an amateur sleuth.

Despite the pronounced propaganda of world revolution and progress in the new Soviet state, Aelita shows the society in general that is far from ideal.

The “futuristic” world on Mars was made in a constructivist manner with Antiquity allusions in its political structure. The Martial monarchy reminds the dictatorship and there is also slavery on Mars. The Soviet citizens are trying to change this situation and call for revolution. Aelita, the Queen of Mars is an example of a typical “femme fatale”, very traditional cinematic role in this epoch. It’s important to highlight that the Martian sets were designed by Isaac Rabinovich and Victor Simov and costumes designed by avant-garde artist Aleksandra Ekster, who was one of the founders of the Art Deco style. The constructivism in the USSR is directly connected with Art Deco. The new era needed a new style in architecture and design. Soviet constructivism, like European Art Deco, combined classical, non-classical (Egyptian, Babylonian, Gothic, Baroque or ancient Eastern art) and modernist elements.

Engineer Los as the main character fits to each epoch. He is a person with an appearance and manners from the 1910s who feels definitely lost and, as the result, he finds himself in the new Soviet society with his wife and working on building a new world. At the same time he feels like a romantic character and a hero on Mars despite the image of Gusev that looks more heroic according to Soviet ideals.

The official Soviet critics underrated this film and in my opinion it has never been a film for a mass audience. In general Aelita is a work of art, which shows a kind of interconnection between the Imperial heritage and early Soviet art: here the spectators can see not only the main artistic styles and directions of the epoch but also a base for Socialist realism in the 1930s. It is interesting to see how the mixture of styles and genres could exist in early Soviet cinema before it became much more strongly concentrated on propaganda since the late 1920s. If we are talking about propaganda, this aspect is one of the most important ones in the film but, affecting the plot, it is shown as the part of it and it is made a little more sophisticated than in later Soviet films of the same decade. So it still stays interesting for film-makers and the researchers of the XX century’s art.

Text: Julia Sumzina

The stills and video are from the open sources.

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