Aelita (1924) was not the first science fiction movie set in space (that honor generally goes to Le voyage dans la lune [A Trip to the Moon] made in 1902). But it was probably one of the most influential early films in the genre. Aelita was based on a novel of the same name published a year earlier written by Russian novelist Aleksey Tolstoy. The movie was a sensation in Soviet Russia, and one of the first true “blockbusters” in the history of cinema. The man behind the movie was Yakov Protazanov, who had gained a modicum of fame already in pre-Revolutionary times, but whose Aelita elevated him to iconic status in the world of newly emerging Soviet cinema. Much like modern Hollywood movies, weeks of intense advertising preceded the release of the movie; airplanes dropped thousands of leaflets announcing the opening over several cities. Tickets for the premiere were sold out, and the size of crowd on opening night was so overwhelming that Protazanov himself was unable to attend.
Protazanov completely reimagined Tol’stoy’s original novel, which was about a Soviet soldier who travels to Mars and incites a proletarian revolution among the bourgeois Martians. In the book, Aelita, the queen of Mars, falls in love with the soldier, and shenanigans ensue. In Protazanov’s hands, the story becomes much more sophisticated. The protagonist, Los, is a soldier whose background is bourgeois and is married to sweet Natasha. He receives a radio message from Mars and becomes distracted from his marriage. Turns out that on Mars, Queen Aelita rules over a brutal state that exploits its workers. But the Queen herself becomes obsessed with Los who she can see through a telescope. She begins to reject the exploitation endemic in her state. Soon, Los and a fellow proletariat go to Mars on a rocket and help the Queen dismantle the totalitarian state, but it turns out that the Queen was simply making a grab or power; she had never intended to end exploitation. The revolution fails. In the end, Los wakes up and realizes it was all a dream.
In the movie, the revolution in Mars is riddled with ambiguities that don’t demarcate along binary poles such as capitalist vs. communist or bourgeois vs. proletarian. Even the outcome is ambiguous. Some have argued that such an approach was Protazanov’s commentary about the complexities of the New Economic Policy (NEP) initiated by Lenin in the early 1920s when there was a mixed economy (with limited private enterprise). Enabled by looser censorship restrictions, this was a time of rich and experimental artistic expression in film, literature, art, and pretty much everything under the Sun. Soviet society was complicated and driven by conflicting impulses.
Unsurprisingly, Protazanov’s ambiguous take on socialism rankled Soviet officials who wanted the soldier to overthrow the bourgeoisie and create a new proletarian culture on Mars. As late as 1928, Soviet newspapers were still complaining of the “petty bourgeois ending” of the movie where Los returns to the domesticities of marriage, and not the task at hand: socialist revolution.
Aelita was important for many reasons, but often forgotten is how much it influenced real people to do real things. It influenced a generation of Soviet space enthusiasts, many of whom later went on to create the actual rockets and spaceships that opened the Space Age in the 1950s and 1960s. One of the major Soviet projects in the 1960s to send humans to Mars (never finished, unfortunately) was affectionately named “Aelita” by its designer, Vladimir Chelomey, who remembered watching the movie as a kid.
The picture above is a composite of four different scenes. On the top left, we see Queen Aelita (played by Yuliya Solntseva). The two shots of sets evoke the sets of Fritz Lang’s more famous Metropolis, which Aelita influenced.
For the complete movie, go here. For more on the culture of space enthusiasm in the 1920s, a good place to start is here or here.