Under the Big Top tent, the weather grew increasingly icy as if predicting the wintery setting of Yakov Protozanov’s silent sci fi (often credited as the first Soviet sci-fi) based on a novel by Alexei Tolstoy. The year is 1924 and a mysterious radio signal has been received by scientists the world over. ‘Anta…Oda…Uteh…’. Some make the claim it could be a message from Mars. One such individual is Los (Nikolia Tsereteli), a plucky young scientist who feels isolated by the fervent radicalism of his comrades (no doubt a reflection of the director’s own feelings, Aelita being his first film since exile in Paris). It is a mad claim, but suddenly we are on Mars. By far the most overwhelming aspect of the film is the multi layered, angular set design for the Martian civilisation, fitted perfectly by the equally superb costume design by Alexandra Ekster and Isaak Rabinovich. Here, Queen Aelita (Yuliya Sointseva) is shown a glimpse of life on Earth. She just so happens to catch Los passionately showing his affection for his wife, Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi), whose hollow eyes make for a haunting partnership with Los’ often expressionless face. She is entranced, and decides that this is the life she wants. ‘Touch my lips with your lips as those people on Earth did’ she tells the reluctant King. From here, Aelita: Queen of Mars marries the parallel narratives of Los’s rush to Mars and Aelita’s rebellion against conformity. Here, the Protozanov juggles the many sub-plots and flashbacks impresses such as in an imaginatively structured scene early in the film when each character remembers their life before the revolution – or perhaps it’s just an era they have romanticised.
The score provided by Cleaning Women can only be described as something resembling a sublime, elongated piece from New Order’s golden era. What makes it all the more amazing is that they can create such hypnotic, kinetic sounds with homemade instruments. Cleaning Women’s score is at times meticulous in structure, at others bursting with spontaneity. My only complaint being it occasionally undermines the few moments of emotional sincerity in the film. Mostly though, Protozanov’s view of the world is a largely cynical and calculating one; people are greedy, deceptive and innately disloyal. It’s fascinating to watch the work of a filmmaker far more interested in fantastic realities than his far more overtly political colleagues. Though Protozanov lets the middle section of the film drag slightly, he picks it up to built towards an explosive finale. with a twist ending that may make some audience members feel cheated, but nevertheless questions the fabric of the science fiction and pro-revolutionary genre, and one I’ve seen imitated many times since. another thinly veiled and particularly insidious anti-communist dig comes from the king of Mars whom intends to destroy any incoming humans else risk ‘the plague of Earth’ infecting Martians. But then I could be interpreting it wrong; one thing’s for sure, Aelita rather alarmingly provokes you. In tandem with the post-rock score, too, makes it difficult not to be swept up in the action. Does it improve the picture? Almost certainly. One thing’s for sure, Aelita: Queen of Mars should be considered amongst the works of Eisenstein, Vertov et al as an intelligently crafted and invigorating classic.
For the New Film Journalism Workshop.