Aelita is based on a novel by Tolstoy (a different Tolstoy). It is a remarkable Russian Science Fiction film released in 1924, two years BEFORE Metropolis. Like the latter, Aelita is a political allegory, but a more successful one, in that a portion of the plot (those elements which take place in Moscow) is more credible and realistic than anything in Metropolis. For sheer spectacle, Metropolis can’t be beat, yet the Science Fiction aspects of Aelita are so stylistic as to appear genuinely alien. I prefer Metropolis as entertainment, but Aelita is the better film.
Aelita begins with the receipt of a mysterious radio signal. Bearded scientist Spiridinov brings it to the attention of Chief Engineer Los, saying “You don’t suppose this signal came from Mars do you?”
Los’ eyes light up. “You may think I’m crazy,” he replies, “but maybe somebody on Mars is wondering about us.”
Meanwhile Los’ wife Natasha is busy at the Koursk Train Station checkpoint in Moscow, examining the papers of the torrent of refugees fleeing the ongoing civil war between the Reds and the Whites. It’s not clear what happens to those whose papers aren’t in order, so her job strikes me as a little ominous. With her is Nurse Masha, soon to fall in love with Gussev, one of those annoying hearty peasant/soldier comic relief characters that show up in Russian films, usually much addicted to playing the Accordion.
We’re on Mars. We see weirdly effective futurist/cubist sets designed by Isaak Rabinovich of the Kamerny theatre. Everything is angles or overlapping scales, towering shafts with dramatic interplay of light and shadow. The costumes, by Aleksandra Ekster, emphasize the same sort of angular construction, made of a shiny black plastic-like material with highly reflective clear vinyl overlapping, or draped in folds of glittering white cloth. Great efforts are made by the actors to ensure that every motion they make is somehow unnatural, either too quick or just plain peculiar. In other words, an honest attempt to appear truly alien.
Aelita, Queen of Mars, wearing a spiked headdress and what appears to be a dress designed for triple breasts, waits while her maid Ihoshka spies on Gor, the Chief Scientist on Mars and the keeper of the Radiant Energy, as he explains his latest invention to Tuskub, King of Mars. A model of a marvelous prismatic telescope is shown to the king. Aelita seduces Gor into demonstrating the actual telescope for her. She is fascinated as scenes of Earthly life appear, busy streets, battleships, Los kissing his wife on a bridge…
Aelita turns to Gor and commands “Touch my lips with your lips as the Earth people did” which he does, awkwardly. Dissatisfied, she goes back to her role as interplanetary voyeur.
Back on Earth, Gussev arrives, falls in love with Masha, and plays the accordion. Erlich and Elena also show up at the checkpoint, a husband and wife team of con artists. Erlich tries to bribe Natasha. Offended by this plutocratic behaviour, she ignores him. Erlich and Elena leave, deciding to shack up with Spiridinov, Elena’s old flame, and to ensure they are welcome, Erlich pretends to be his wife’s brother.
Erlich contacts like-minded swindling former capitalists and throws a party where everyone reminiscences about the good old days when manners were refined and delicate and you were allowed to beat your servants.
On Mars Tuskub catches Aelita mooning over Los at the telescope and has Gor shut it down. He’s jealous too, but then he has cause to be.
Back on Earth, all housing belongs to the Soviet, and Erlich (moving out of Spiridinov’s place to give Elena a chance to fleece him out of his family heirlooms) is imposed on Natasha and Los. An annoyed Los is shown bundling his blueprints and a model of his spaceship out of his Den to make room for Erlich. Natasha is upset by Los’ attitude.
While merrily painting propaganda posters with Erlich for an upcoming Agitprop play at the checkpoint, Natasha invites Los to join the fun, but he’s moody and petulant, what with Erlich continually kissing his wife’s fingers and all, and angrily slams the table.
Once again on Mars, we see Aelita painting a picture of Los with an instrument remarkably like a bundle of light filaments. When told by Ihoska that the Elders are busy meeting, she tries to get to the tower of Radiant Energy where the telescope is kept, but Tuskub has locked her out. Furious, she interrupts the state meeting. “How dare you hide Gor’s apparatus from me!”
Patiently Tuskub states “You may reign but we rule. The tower will remain closed.” Aelita, very angry, leaves.
“So,” says Gor, “by decree of the elders, one third of the life force will be stored in refrigerators.” He’s referring to the worker population. We see guards dressed in costumes striped like bees ordering ill-clad workers to slide down chutes into the vast underground storage complex. Both workers and guards wear square helmets hiding their faces, the effect is inhuman, almost insect-like. Workers are piled like cordwood in a scene eerily prescient of both the Holocaust and the Gulag, before being stored in stacked cells.
Back on Earth, Los entrusts his spacecraft plans to Spiridinov. Erlich takes Natasha to a black market ball. Natasha looks at the well-shod women around her and thinks back to the straw boots the refugees wore. Nevertheless she stays. A drunken Spiridinov (present because of Elena) mentions Los is leaving town. Natasha flees on foot into the Moscow winter, trying to reach home, but Erlich catches up and kisses her just as Los happens along. They don’t call Los ‘Los’ for nothing. A born loser!
Los leaves town and works on a jolly hydro-electric plant project for six months. He gets a letter from Spiridinov, who’s left Russia for good because of Elena, but has hidden the plans in los’s home. Los returns home, sees the shadows of a man and woman kissing at the top of the stairs, and when his wife descends the stairs, shoots her dead.
Bit of a surprise that. Renders the possibility of reconciliation somewhat difficult.
Our ‘hero’ (kind of hard to identify with a murderer) disguises himself as Spiridinov and somehow gets the money to build himself a riveted metal pear-shaped spaceship in a wooden warehouse.
In the meantime Accordion-playing Gussev has married Masha, and now feels bored. The civil war has died down.
While out walking with his wife he sees a poster referring to the spaceship project, rushes in to volunteer, is accepted, then rushes back to his wife shouting, “Can you believe this? I’m flying to Mars tomorrow!” His wife disapproves and hides his clothes while he sleeps. Resourceful, he puts on HER clothes and rushes through the Moscow streets, barely making it in time for liftoff.
The launch sequence is adequate. Within the warehouse we see rocket exhaust pouring from the base of the craft as the building disintegrates around it. Next we see a model shot of the craft ripping through the roof. Then footage of the ground rippling past at a furious rate (shot from a low-flying airplane).
Weasely police spy Kravtsov (delightfully played by Igor Illinski) has hidden aboard to arrest Spiridinov for murdering Natasha (why?), and is somewhat taken back to find out that Spiridinov is Los.
On Mars Tuskub has observed the launch through the telescope. He gives orders that the probable landing spot be calculated and the aliens terminated. When Aelita tries to dissuade him, he comments “We can’t allow rebels on Mars.” So she has Ihoshka murder the scientist who brings her the information on the projected landing spot, then orders her to meet the aliens and bring them to her.
We see a poorly detailed but evocative model of a Martian city with tall towers linked by wires. The spaceship lands nearby, Ihoska guiding the intrepid explores past the palace guards. Well, Kravtsov isn’t quite so intrepid. He breaks away and walks up to the guards saying, “Comrades, you wouldn’t happen to be police officers, would you?” They’re startled, but lead him before the King.
“Comrade Tuskub”, says Kravtsov, patting the king on the knee, “Detective Kravtsov requests permission to arrest Los.” Instead, weasely Kravtsov is arrested. Never, ever pat a Martian King on the knee!
Meanwhile, Los is smitten by Aelita, and Gussev by Ihoshka (Hey Gussev, what about Masha?) Aelita commands “Touch my lips with your lips as they do on Earth.”
Delighted, Los picks her up and carries her to her bed. Aelita is equally delighted, she hadn’t anticipated matters progressing beyond her lips I guess.
At court, the slain scientist is brought in, still clutching the necklace he’d torn from Ihoshka as she killed him. Tuskub recognizes it. Then the court starts with astonishment as they hear something alien. It’s that idiot Gussev playing the Accordion for Ihoshka, who appears entranced. God knows what Martian women see in Accordion players. She’s arrested, and led to the slave chambers, along with Kratsov. Gussev follows and picks a fight with the guards.
Back at the Queen’s bedroom, Los thinks he’s with his wife. Tuskub and guards burst in. Los goes to shoot him, but Aelita wrestles the gun out of his hands. Los, Aelita, Gussev, Kratsov and Ihoshka wind up in prison along with thousands of workers. This is a mistake on the part of Tuskub, for Gussev whips up the Martian workers with a little oratory.
“Comrades, follow our example! Unite in a family of workers into the Martian Union of Soviet Republics!”
The workers are suitably inflamed. Aelita jumps up and shouts “I’m with you! I’ll lead you myself!”
Gussev is worried. “I don’t buy that! Queens setting up revolutions?”
Nevertheless, the workers drive the guards from the prison gates, break out and attack the palace. The soldiers fight with strobe-light weapons attached to their elbows. Gussev bonks both guards and workers on the head with a club. Rather indiscriminate of him. Tuskub is slain, and Los kills Gor with his own hands.
Aelita shouts to the crowd, “Put down your weapons, they’ll no longer be needed on Mars!” The workers drop their weapons.
Aelita orders the palace guard to open fire and drive the workers back to their caves. As she explains to Los, “From now on, I alone will reign and rule.”
Los doesn’t see her, he sees his wife. Infuriated at being betrayed twice, he pushes her off a ledge to her death.
Then he snaps out of his daydreaming back at the Moscow train station. Gussev and Masha happen along. With a bemused expression, Los tells them “I started daydreaming again, I killed my wife half an hour ago, but I won’t run away, no, I’ll go back to her.”
He returns home, followed by Gussev and Masha. They peek in and discover Los in his wife’s arms. Los tells her “I was out of my mind when I shot at you. I’m so happy I missed.” I bet she is too.
Los takes his spaceship plans and hurls them into the fireplace. He explains “Enough daydreaming. We have different work to worry about.” Fade on a cheery scene of the happy couple warmed by the glow of burning scientific documents.
The film was not appreciated by Soviet critics, perhaps because the rogue Erlich was a charming rogue, the glorious scientist a wife-murdering wimp, and the would-be police detective such a weasely idiot. But as a vision of contemporary hardships livened by spoof elements, not to mention the pure escapism of the Martian scenes, the film was wildly popular with the Soviet public. Half the females born in Russia that year were named “Aelita.”
The acting is of a high standard, the sets superb. Overall, Aelita is a hell of a good film, a landmark film, a classic. Stalin hated it, but then he hated everything, so his opinion doesn’t count.