Aelita, Queen of Mars

The 2012 Berlinale retrospective “The Red Dream Factory” is dedicated to the German-Soviet studio Mezhrabpom-Film, which produced movies for the international proletariat from 1923-1936. Among the films screened is Iakov Prostazanov’s pleasingly daft science-fiction film Aelita (1924). The film tells the story of a Russian engineer who travels to Mars to foment revolution. He’s so handsome and charismatic–like all Soviet engineers at the time, no doubt–that Aelita, the queen of Mars, falls in love in him. Prostazanov, the Steven Spielberg of the early Soviet cinema, had been banished for a while because his films were considered too bourgeois. He was brought back to make Aelita to help bolster the financial fortunes of Mezhrabpom-Film. The film didn’t do very well at the box office.

Years ago I attended a screening of Aelita in Philadelphia, where I lived at the time. Musical accompaniment was provided by a duo who played traditional instruments (violin, cello) for the earth scenes and instruments developed for (or used most often in) the movies (the theremin, most prominently) for the Mars scenes. The special effects were pretty sophisticated for the day, and the set designs, influenced by Cubism and Constructivism, were probably the most inventive I’ve ever seen in a sci-fi film, ever. The whole experience was a blast, proving–to me, at any rate–that a silent film can offer the same level of aesthetic pleasure as a contemporary film can, even in the most special-effects laden genres.

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