Mid to post word war I Russia is a weird place. Perhaps almost as weird as Aelita: Queen of Mars, which was one of the first (if not the first) Russian sci-fi movie ever made. In a time when America was enjoying Jazz, scandalous debutantes, dilettantes, Dadaists, prohibition and was breaking out of its isolationist shell to move to the center of the world stage, Russia endured a dark revolution. Russia arrived out of WWI with over three million soldiers dead. Rasputin, a Jim Jones like figure for the Russian Royal Family, had effectively taken over the running of the country in the wartime absence of Czar Nicolas the II before his assassination. Two years later, the Czar and his family were executed. What followed 1918 were a few years of civil unrest as the country settled, and embraced the new leadership with hope and optimism for the future of Russia, it’s people and it’s culture.
The changing of the guard was not just governmental, it encompassed all aspects of Russia. The country was busy remaking itself in architecture, art, print, advertising and in the Kino Teaters (Russian movie theater). The movement was known as “constructivism,” or the belief that art should have form and function, though two major parties in the debate contend it should have one or the other, not both. This is where Aelita falls: 1924 Russia, and given to a director outside the core group of movers and shakers who would, in today’s terms, say that he, “just doesn’t get it.”
The director, Yakov Profazanov, may not have understood what his comrades had been fighting for. He had accumulated, in the span of seven years, directorial experience on nearly 80 feature films. That’s about one feature film (80+ minutes) every month for seven years! At forty-three, Yakov returned to his country from Western Europe at the behest of some who desired to see a globally successful Russian feature to establish their nations film industry. Upon Aelita’s release, his contemporaries became his most outspoken critics, lambasting the movie as either not having enough form, or for not having enough function (serving the Bolshevik agenda). Yakov grew up as a member of the bourgeoisie. His mother influenced his French speaking, and he traveled abroad in Western Europe until he discovered film in Paris through the Pathé Brothers (French filmmakers. One of the first businessmen to “water mark” their films by having a rooster pop into frame to curb piracy of their films). After he returned, he worked with a Russian film producer and went abroad with him during the years of the “Great War.”
The ruling party in the film world contended that art should be about function, that it should serve the purpose of furthering the Bolshevik cause. Aelita, in their eyes, fell very short of this ideal. His fellow artists beat Yakov from the other side as well. Non other than a young Lev Kuleshov is quoted as having said the movie was a prime example of “…The blind alley of pre-revolutionary cinema.” That makes sense, since Yakov did most of his filmmaking before the revolution. A few years later, Lev Kuleshov changed cinema history with his demonstration of “The Kuleshov Effect,” where he showed that the juxtaposition of images creates a perceived emotional effect for the movie viewer.
The movie does make use of one prominent Constructionist and her talents as an architect for the Martian set design. Aleksandra Eskter was hired for her work as a costume and stage designer, heralded and praised for her use of light, and cubist displays. She brought the flash to the lack of substance critics thought the film offered. Her design influence can still be seen in modern sci-fi movies. Her set is expansive, sparsely populated, and sterile. The characters wear uniform clothes of an angular cut, and they have advanced weapons technology built into their army suits. Beyond the visual, it is alien in the sense that those on Mars seem to have no notion of what physical human contact is as evidenced when they say things like, “Touch my lips with your lips as those people on Earth did.”
Some of the backlash may have been brought about by the movie’s enormous budget, and waste of film. Yakov used 22,000 meters, or over 72k feet of film to shoot an 80 minute feature! That is massive. There are reports that they only used two-thousand-ish meters of the 22k meters of film which doesn’t match up with the length of the feature, as every hundred feet of film accounts for about two – two and a half minutes of screen time. Planes even flew over Moscow, dropping the film’s fliers into the city streets. Yakov even abandoned the old practice of pumping the movie out in a months time, spending an entire year to ensure a quality release. Despite all the fanfare, domestically, the movie was a flop. Perhaps it’s failed release lies with the fact that Yakov came from the outside, and people associated him with an ineffectual system and government they had only recently overthrown. Aelita’s held up over the years, and it’s a silent film you won’t hear anyone snoring in.
Christie, Ian. Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches To Russian and Soviet Cinema. New York, New York: Routledge, 1991. Print. <http://books.google.com/books?id=PIXotSI6-SQC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false>.
Hildreth, Richard. "Aelita, Queen of Mars, 1924." San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Walker Art Center, 2009. Web. Web. 11 Nov 2013. <http://www.silentfilm.org/pages/detail/2226>.
Smele, Jonathan. "War and Revolution in Russia 1914 - 1921." BBC - History. BBC, 03 10 2011. Web. Web. 9 Nov 2013. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/eastern_front_01.shtml>.