DVD review by
James Newman


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Before Eisenstein, Vertov, and Pudovkin captured the attention of the world with a new and exciting approach to filmmaking, Soviet filmmaker Yakov Protazanov forged an impressive career with more traditional fodder. His prolific film career began at the very beginning of the Soviet film industry. He started as an actor in 1905, but by 1909 he had moved to the director's chair. Between 1909 and 1917, he directed 40 films, many of which were grand-scale historical epics, literary adaptations, tear-jerkers, and other escapist fare. However, when the October Revolution brought turmoil and uncertainty, Protazanov fled Russia. First landing in Yalta in the Crimea and later drifting through Odessa and Constantinople, Protazanov and his comrades continued to make films, but they received only half-hearted financial backing from the local studios. Once reaching France, Protazanov's career once again took root, but after stability was re-established in Russia, the new, fledgling Soviet film industry urged Protazanov to return and contribute his talents to new productions. And return he did.

Once back in Russia, he began planning a movie loosely based upon a novella by Alexei Tolstoy--Aelita, The Queen of Mars. And this is the movie he is most known for in the West. A socialist science-fiction spectacle with magnificent sets that evoke constructivist and cubist motifs, Aelita was the first big-budget movie made in Russia. One year and a half in the making, Aelita was intended as ideologically-correct mass entertainment that could compete at the box office with Hollywood movies.

With pre-premiere hype that would make contemporary film studios green with envy, Aelita received a huge build-up: airplanes dropped thousands of leaflets and giant figures of Aelita and Tuskub decorated theater facades. Audiences couldn't wait for theater doors to open. And when the doors did indeed open, moviegoers stampeded the box office. According to some stories, the commotion kept Protazanov himself from attending the premiere screening. While Aelita was a popular success, Soviet critics were less charitable. They lamented the movie's Western style escapism. And later, after the arrival of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Vertov, Aelita was withdrawn from circulation.

However, the movie's influence is hard to overestimate. Its incredible avant-garde set designs--by Alexandra Exter and her protégé Isaak Rabinovich--would soon be echoed by Fritz Lang in Metropolis, and the set designs for planet Mongo in Flash Gordon strongly reflected Aelita's vision of Mars. The art design for Aelita is, simply put, out of this world. Spokes radiate from the Queen's hat. Doors open like camera apertures. Aelita's maid wears a spiral-shaped hat that seems to radiate from her forehead and sweep around her head. Gor, the guardian of the planet's energy, dresses in plastic tubes. Sentries look like robots, with face masks and huge ball joints at their shoulders. Staircases start one direction and then twist back in other directions--like Escher drawings. Columns arch like rib bones. The Elders march with their hands clasped within large medallion-shaped devices that they wear on their chests. Wires that function like harp strings encircle small pools and radiate to the high ceilings. Gor's telescope looks like a ship's mast with springs, prisms, and triangles instead of sails. This is a world like no other hitherto captured on film.

While the scenes set on Mars have attracted most of the attention to Aelita, most of the movie actually takes place in Moscow. These scenes tell the story of an engineer named Loss who becomes increasingly suspicious that his wife is unfaithful. Loss leads a construction effort to build a spaceship. On the outskirts of town, within a large barn-like structure, Loss and his comrades build a balloon-shaped ship that they hope will carry them into outer space. Loss, in particular, dreams that the ship will carry him to Mars, where he can meet the woman of his dreams, Aelita. Meanwhile, she longs to spy on Earth. She turns on her feminine charms for Gor in order to get access to his telescope: "Show me the other worlds! No one will ever know," she says. He takes her to the Tower of Radiant Energy and lets her peek at Earth. She sees Navy battleships, desert caravans, and Times Square traffic. When she sees Loss kiss his wife, Aelita begins to get frisky with Gor: "Touch my lips with your lips, as those people on Earth did."

The scenes on earth are enlivened by the performances of two supporting characters. Gussev is an accordion-playing Red soldier who returns to Moscow for "rehabilitation." Eager to find some action, he joins Loss's expedition to Mars. And a boob named Kratsov dreams of becoming a police detective. To impress the Chief of Police, he decides to investigate a recent crime and find the perpetrator. Gussev and Kratsov provide much of the movie's comic relief. While the drama with Loss, his wife (Natasha), and their upstairs neighbor (Erlich), who Loss fears may be having an affair with his Natasha, provides brooding tension, the scenes with Gussev and Kratsov give the movie a less intimidating atmosphere.

The drama on Earth isn't without interest, but it's fairly ordinary stuff. If it weren't for the scenes on Mars, we probably wouldn't care about the movie today. These scenes carry the movie's strongest political message. When the Earthmen arrive on Mars by way of Loss's spaceship, Gussev immediately begins to stir up the workers: "Comrades, only you can help yourselves. . . . Unite into a family of worker in a Martian Union of Soviet Socialist Republics," he urges. Before long, a major revolution takes root. The scenes of common workers revolting against the ruling class would be echoed in Universal Studio's Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s.

Now available on DVD from Image Entertainment, Aelita can once again be appreciated as one of the great science-fiction movies of the silent era. (This release of Aelita is essentially the same as Kino International's 1991 VHS release.) This DVD doesn't feature any extras, but the print has been restored and new intertitles have been added. In addition, a new piano score by Alexander Rannie evokes themes by Sergei Prokofiev.


Aelita, The Queen of Mars is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment in a restored edition. Suggested retail price: $24.95.