Watch the First Russian Science Fiction Film, Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924)

Despite the Sovi­et Union’s sup­pres­sion of a great many writ­ers and film­mak­ers, the com­mu­nist state nonethe­less pro­duced some of the finest film and lit­er­a­ture of the 20th cen­tu­ry. We are lucky, for exam­ple, to have Mikhail Bul­gakov’s The Mas­ter and Mar­gari­ta, which was nev­er pub­lished dur­ing the author’s life­time and was for many years there­after cen­sored or rel­e­gat­ed to samiz­dat ver­sions. A sim­i­lar fate almost befell the first Russ­ian sci­ence fic­tion film, Aeli­ta: Queen of Mars, a silent from 1924 that inspired such indis­pens­able clas­sics as Flash Gor­don and Fritz Lang’s Metrop­o­lis. The film—which tops a Guardian list of “Sev­en Sovi­et sci-fi films every­one should see”—con­tributed to a rich cin­e­mat­ic vocab­u­lary with­out which it would be hard to imag­ine the aes­thet­ics of much sci­ence fic­tion in gen­er­al.

Direct­ed by Yakov Pro­tazanov in the the­atri­cal, futur­is­tic con­struc­tivist style that Fritz Lang bor­rowed, Aeli­ta tells the sto­ry of Los, an Earth engi­neer who builds a space­ship and trav­els to Mars to meet and fall in love with its queen.

Fur­ther plot devel­op­ments make clear that Lang may owe some­thing to the film’s sto­ry as well, involv­ing a tyran­ni­cal Mar­t­ian ruler, Aeli­ta’s father, who ruth­less­ly exploits his plan­et’s pro­le­tari­at. All­movie describes Aeli­ta as “the Marx­ist strug­gle reach­es out­er space” and indeed the film dra­ma­tizes an alien rev­o­lu­tion very close to the one that took place back on Earth.


Part of the rea­son the film fell out of favor with the Sovi­et gov­ern­ment in lat­er decades—and irked crit­ics at the time—is its ambiva­lence about rev­o­lu­tion­ary pol­i­tics through its por­tray­al of Los as a dis­af­fect­ed intel­lec­tu­al. Alex­ei Tol­stoy—author of the film’s source novel—had few­er reser­va­tions. The so-called “Com­rade Count” won three Stal­in prizes after his return from a brief Euro­pean exile. Unlike the dis­si­dent crit­ic Bul­gakov, Tolstoy—a dis­tant rel­a­tive of both Leo Tol­stoy and Ivan Turgenev—has been described by his ene­mies as cyn­i­cal, oppor­tunis­tic and, lat­er, total­ly in thrall to Stal­in. His friends prob­a­bly described him as a loy­al par­ty man. (He is also cred­it­ed with being the first to ascer­tain the Naz­i’s use of gas vans.)

Aeli­ta the film made a favor­able impres­sion on its first audi­ences (see an orig­i­nal poster above). One of the first full-length films about space trav­el, it enabled ordi­nary Rus­sians to imag­ine what may have seemed to them like the near future of Sovi­et tech­nol­o­gy. And yet, writes Andrew Hor­ton in a lengthy essay on Aeli­ta, despite its rep­u­ta­tion, the sci-fi clas­sic is “nei­ther sci­ence fic­tion nor a pro-rev­o­lu­tion­ary film.” Con­tem­po­rary crit­ics and film­mak­ers felt that Pro­tazanov’s adap­ta­tion not only showed insuf­fi­cient com­mit­ment to the rev­o­lu­tion, but it also man­i­fest­ed “alleged con­ti­nu­ity with the bour­geois cin­e­ma of the Tsarist age”—a seri­ous charge in the age of social­ist real­ism and dis­rup­tive cin­e­mat­ic exper­i­ments like those of Dzi­ga Ver­tov.

In hind­sight, how­ev­er, Aeli­ta turns out to have been a film before its time, and indeed a work of clas­sic sci-fi, in its extreme­ly imag­i­na­tive use of tech­nol­o­gy, cos­tum­ing, and set design. With­out the fas­ci­na­tion it has always held for film buffs, it might have dis­ap­peared, giv­en its oppo­si­tion to Par­ty dog­ma: “The film prais­es domes­tic­i­ty and mar­ried life at a time when soci­ety was exper­i­ment­ing with the nature and mean­ing of rela­tion­ships,” Hor­ton writes, “It is a film that looks to rebuild­ing, con­sol­i­da­tion, progress and the future and rejects rev­o­lu­tion as an unachiev­able Utopi­an ide­al open to hijack.” All of this con­text can seem a bit heavy, but we need­n’t work too hard to untan­gle Aeli­ta’s ide­o­log­i­cal strands. Sim­ply enjoy the movie as an enter­tain­ing tech­ni­cal achieve­ment from which we can draw a line to lat­er sci-fi films like 1957’s Road to the Stars (above) and, from there, to mod­ern mas­ter­pieces like Stan­ley Kubrick­’s 2001.

Aeli­ta will be added to our list of 101 Silent Films, a sub­set of our larg­er col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

via Ubuweb

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Metrop­o­lis: Watch a Restored Ver­sion of Fritz Lang’s Mas­ter­piece (1927)

Eight Free Films by Dzi­ga Ver­tov, Cre­ator of Sovi­et Avant-Garde Doc­u­men­taries

Sovi­et Ani­ma­tions of Ray Brad­bury Sto­ries: ‘Here There Be Tygers’ & ‘There Will Comes Soft Rain’

Sovi­et Artists Envi­sion a Com­mu­nist Utopia in Out­er Space

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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    En real­i­dad solo es algo muy soviéti­co, muy a tono con la pro­pa­gan­da comu­nista que prác­ti­ca­mente anu­la al arte. La com­para­ción se da con las pelícu­las pro­pa­gandís­ti­cas norteam­er­i­canas de la 2 guer­ra. Mucha pro­pa­gan­da, mucha políti­ca, poco arte. En Aeli­ta pasa eso: poco arte, y no veo influ­en­cia en la estéti­ca de la CF en gen­er­al.
    Las obras soviéti­cas no influ­en­cia­ron a la cor­ri­ente prin­ci­pal de la CF de occi­dente, siem­pre infini­ta­mente supe­ri­or a cualquier otra. Salu­dos

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