In 1924, Soviet filmmaker Yakov Protazanov one-upped George Melies’s A Trip to the Moon: he brought his audiences to Mars. Aelita: The Queen of Mars was the first Soviet sci-fi film. Preceding Andrei Tarkovsky’s futuristic dreamscapes by decades and inspiring Fritz Lang’s seminal Metropolis (1928), Melies employed a constructivist art style to depict Mars. Yet soon after its release, Soviet censors deemed the film too Western and stopped screening it. Meanwhile, critics in the West wrote off the film for appearing too Soviet; analyses rarely delved deeper than John Brosnan’s quip that Aelita sought to “bring the message of Marx to Mars.” This critical oversight has not only diminished Aelita’s role in film history but eclipsed the insights it offers into the challenges of building communism in a capitalist world.
In the opening scene of Aelita, the protagonist, a Soviet engineer named Los, receives a mysterious telegram that reads, “Anta… Odeli… Uta…” The nonsensical words obsess Los, who imagines the message is being beamed from Mars, where a nefarious alien queen named Aelita has spotted him through a futuristic telescope and fallen in love with him. Los constructs a spaceship and travels to Mars, where he discovers that a tyrannical ruler named Tuskub has subjugated the Martian working class and forced them underground. Los’ companion Gusev, a Red Army veteran who still bears the wounds of the Russian civil war, inspires the Martian workers with the Bolshevik example and leads them to overthrow Tuskub. But Aelita, having allied herself with the workers, suddenly takes advantage of the revolution to seize control of the planet. Horrified, Los kills her, only to awaken into reality—the whole film has been nothing but a daydream inspired by the telegram signal, which turns out to be an American advertisement for tires.
Aelita’s heterodoxical blend of early ’20s German and American melodrama and radical communist politics and aesthetics ultimately rubbed both Soviet authorities and Western critics the wrong way. Complicating this stylistic indeterminacy was the uncertainty of the USSR’s relationship with the West. The USSR ideologically rejected capitalism, but a decade’s worth of international and civil warfare had wrought severe infrastructural damage and forced the new communist state to remain economically dependent on capitalist Europe. Ninety-five percent of films in Soviet distribution were foreign movies. Struggling for autonomy, early Soviet filmmakers tried to separate their craft from the West both economically and stylistically. Aelita achieved the former, garnering massive commercial success, but it did so at the latter’s cost, leading it to fall out of favor with authorities for its “petty bourgeois” escapism. The film’s fantastical images were too far removed from the revolutionary concerns which were supposed to occupy Soviet citizens.
Ironically, however, a closer analysis of Aelita reveals its critique of the very escapist films it was lumped in with. After all, the overarching narrative of the film is a daydream which distracts the protagonist from his social responsibilities; when he awakens at the film’s conclusion, Los declares, “Enough daydreaming! We have different work to worry about.” This concluding call for lucidity is a significant departure from the novel Aelita is based on, in which Los’ journey to Mars is a real event rather than a daydream; the novel ends with Los bringing advanced Martian machinery back to the USSR, suggesting that technological ambitions can aid in the construction of communism. Protazanov’s choice to depict Los’ journey to Mars as a dangerous solipsistic lapse conveys a much more skeptical attitude toward technological utopianism. Aelita, who plays a central role in Los’ fantasies, symbolizes this counter-revolutionary lure of technology. First seducing the Martian scientist Gor in order to use his interplanetary telescope, then seducing Los, and finally seducing the entire Martian proletariat, Aelita’s charms are ultimately exposed as a tyrannical ploy for power. Protazanov warns the Soviet people to avoid the fate of the film’s Martians—to prevent the lure of technology from subverting their revolutionary energy.
This warning becomes particularly meaningful when one considers the hopes and anxieties surrounding cinematic technology in the early Soviet era. In 1922, Vladimir Lenin called cinema “the most important of the arts” for the communist state; a decade later, German critic Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) praised Soviet directors for using film to organize a class-conscious perception of reality, while also warning that capitalist cinema would inhibit film from fulfilling its destined political task. Aelita contains Benjamin’s theories in embryo: the film’s futuristic technologies enable perception of formerly inaccessible parts of the world but ultimately sabotage revolution. Gor’s telescope, which Tuskub hides from the Martian workers, reflects Benjamin’s concern that lingering bourgeois elements would deter film from fulfilling its liberationist role, while Los’ spaceship demonstrates the counter-revolutionary effects of film when used as a means of escapism rather than for fostering class consciousness. Yet the most interesting symbol of film technology is the telegraph which delivers the mysterious “Anta… Odeli… Uta” message at the film’s outset. In the context of Western domination of the Soviet film market, the American telegram message instigating Los’ escapist reverie can be interpreted as a symbol of Western film itself. Aelita, therefore, poses a central question facing Soviet cinema: how is communist film to foment class consciousness if the industry is dominated by exports from capitalist countries?
Aelita is a fascinatingly complex film that has been overlooked by critics for too long. Not only does it blend contradictory elements of Western and Soviet cinema, but it comments on this paradox, warning against the very seduction it enacts. Far from the didactic propaganda or the sci-fi escapism it was accused of being, Aelita is an investigation of the contradiction between Soviet communism’s internationalist aspirations and its national structure; between its universalist claims and its geographic confinement; between its desire to compete with capitalism and its need to coexist with it.