July 13, 2011

Aelita Queen of Mars


Aelita, Queen of Mars, is a Russian film made just on the hinge of the 1920s. It was made in 1924, the year that Stalin succeeded Lenin as leader of the Soviet Union. It was made three years after the end of the Russian civil war between the Whites and the Reds had torn through the country. It was made at the height of the New Economic policy, promulgated by Lenin to restore the Scoviet economy by restoring some measure of private enterprise. It is therefore a key historical artefact: reflecting a particular moment within Russian history. It also reflects a particular aesthetic- this was an attempt to make a film which could vie with Hollywood and German cinema in the 1920s- to expand the Soviet ethos throughout the world. It therefore has all the special effects and expensive actors and costumes that money could buy: it looks amazing and its not difficult to see how this film was the epitome of Soviet glamour. Those final words of my sentence conjur up I think the real message of the film because implicit within it is a kind of guilt about its own glamour.

The film concentrates on an engineer- Los- and his wife- Natasha- who live in Moscow. They are joined by two other couples- Ehrlich and his wife (unnamed) and Comrade Gussev and his wife Masha. Los has a friend Spiridinov who is eventually seduced by Ehrlich's wife and ends up leaving Russia as he could not leave the past behind. All these units are seduced by the past in different ways. Ehrlich and his wife are the unreformed Russians who profit from the NEP and want to live exactly as they did under Tsarism. They and their circle fantasize at one point about the luxuries and the order that they enjoyed under Tsarism, they could disregard the interests of the proletariate. Gussev and Masha are good communist citizens: he is a former soldier who has fought against the Whites and comes to the local hospital after the civil war where he falls in love with Masha. Los and Natasha lie between these two extremes: they both genuninely want the Soviet world to succeed (unlike Ehrlich) but both are seduced by the detail of the old life. Ehrlich tries to seduce Natasha by offering her balls and fine food: Los notices and though Natasha never ever succumbs, he becomes jealous and devotes himself instead to dreams of going to Mars.

We see Mars through Los's dreams. He dreams of a world which is ancient and totalitarian. Its a Tsarist set up with the workers imprisoned in the lower sections of the planet and with the upper classes lolling about in the top areas of Mars. In particular an aristocratic council of Elders led by Tuskub, ruler of Mars, dominates the planet as against the sexy and impotent Queen Aelita. Los dreams that Aelita sees him through a newly discovered telescope and longs to kiss him. He also dreams of going to Mars and finding her and kissing her. These dreams, I don't think are supposed to be taken for reality. They are symbolic. Los is dreaming of escaping his good proletarian marriage, fleeing to another woman who embodies luxury and wealth. Whenever you see Aelita, its hard not to think of Calypso or Circe. But the point about Aelita is that she remains a prisoner of the old world- she remains a master and as Gussev says to Los, she remains a master. No matter what Los's dreams of romantic unity with her, he has to compromise between his relationship with Aelita and his integrity as a Communist. Ultimately Los has to realise that it is Aelita he needs to kill, she is the bourgeoise part of him, the bourgeoise part of Natasha and after killing her in his mind, he is able to return to Natasha in the flesh and throw away his dreams and start to build Russia.

Some critics see Aelita as a non-communist film: its an attitude which has some legitimacy as many critics in the 1920s viewed the film as a bourgeoise film. My reading of the film though is that it is profoundly communist. This is a film in which the only basis for a good society and a good relationship is to be a good soviet citizen. The critics are right that Aelita may be more effective propaganda because it strives to implicate the entire structure of life- the relationships between men and women in particular into this vision of soviet citizenship. Ultimately the Ehrlich's marriage is a bourgeois thing of deceit based on materialism, the marriage of Gussev and Masha can only be disturbed by his desire to serve the community and Los's marriage to Natasha is threatened by evil capitalist forces. What Aelita represents is therefore the domestication of communism within Russia- its disassociation from feminist forces for example- but possibly it works better because it isn't just a political tract: it may be a fable about space travel to Mars and the creation of a Soviet Martian republic, but odd as it may sound its also a socially realistic fable!