This is a good deal stranger even than the striking stills from its Mars sequences (which have been seen in books on sf cinema for years) suggest. Partially based on a novel by Alexei Tolstoy, it seems to have taken a Caligari influence on board in that the novel’s plot (which includes a trip to Mars by ‘interplanetonef’ and the fomenting of a revolution in stratified Martian society) is presented insistently as a fantasy (sub-titles keep saying things like ‘back to the dream’) in the mind of stressed-out radio engineer Los (Nikolai Tsereteli), whose worries include his wife Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi) possibly dallying with slimy bourgeois black marketeer Ehlrich (Pavel Pol) and the everyday starvation, privation and apartment-overcrowding prevalent in Moscow during the Russian Civil War of 1921-3.
Director Yakov Protazanov and writers Fedor Ozep and Aleksey Fajko present then-current events in surprisingly credible, not-altogether-flattering detail. Yes, there’s a propagandist intent in depicting those who yearn for pre-revolutionary times as baddies, but Aelita is honest enough to admit that a woman might enjoy black market chocolate, that rogues can get official jobs which enable their racketeering activities, that even a sympathetic character might prefer exile to the struggle and that the great heroic events of modern history have a psychological cost on even the most decent and loyal Soviet citizens. It’s also visibly shot on the frozen streets of Moscow, with news footage of parades and queues cut in, providing a valuable record of what these events looked like. It’s more valuable as history, for instance, than the famous (and entirely recreated) official cinema record in Sergei Eisenstein’s artier movies. Note the cheery, non-religious wedding ceremony which is a matter of stamped documents, a hug and back to the struggle. Or the cartoonish daydreams of now-humbled gross bourgeois who remember being pampered and kowtowed to before the revolution. A juxtaposition cut between the luxury footwear of women at an underground dance for holdovers from the old regime and the straw wrapped around the feet of peasants stumping through the snow reminds the heroine of the true priorities.
So, where does Mars come into all this? Los’s station, and apparently stations around the world, receive the mystery signal ‘Anta … Odeli … Uta’ (the Klaatu Barada Nikto of 1924), which he believes to be a message from the Red Planet (as in the US film of a year earlier, The Man From M.A.R.S.) and prompt him to imagine/dream of life on Mars. Scheming queen Aelita (Yuliya Solntseva), with vamp eyes and a spiky headress (plus hip-revealing cutaway gown), yearns to be free of absolutist monarch King Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert) and has spied Los on Earth, becoming obsessed with the terrestrial practice of kissing (unknown on Mars). The proto-Flash Gordon planet has brutalist, gigantic set design (all concrete blocks) and futurist costume (plastic togas, weird headgear), goons with rayguns and mass-processed slaves piled up like cordwood. Circumstances on Earth mislead Los, freshly returned to Moscow from six months’ hard engineering in the service of the state, into thinking Natasha has been seduced by Ehrlich. He shoots at her – triggering an awkward segue into another layer of fantasy. In his mind, Los disguises himself as a beardy scientist (Tsereteli in a secondary role) who has fled the country after being ensnared by Ehlrich’s wife and supervises the construction of a Verne-look spaceship (oh all right, interplanetonef) in a Moscow warehouse. Joining Los on the trip to Mars are heroic Red Army commander Gusev (Nikolai Batalov), who shows up for the launch in drag because his wife (Vera Orlova) hid his clothes in an attempt to persuade him to stay on Earth (he takes his accordion with him), and Kravtsov (Igor Ilyinsky), an amateur sleuth who failed to pin the disappearance of two sacks of sugar on Ehrlich but is now after Los for murder.
In the fantasy, which ropes in sub-plots from the real world Los could not have been party to (but never mind), the ship crashes on Mars, Los is vamped by Aelita (‘Touch my lips with yours, like you do on Earth’) though he has visions within visions of Natasha, Gusev organises the Martian proletariat into a revolution and declares ‘a Soviet of Mars’ and Aelita tries to position herself as a new absolutist leader but is taught her lesson. It’s all very stirring and exciting, and elements of this vision do filter back into things like Flash Gordon – the barechested, masked Martian slaves are very much like denizens of Mongo, and even the situation in the royal house of Mars (probably intended as a caricature of the Tsars) is as fraught with rivalries and sexual tensions as the household of Ming the Merciless. Back in reality, Los finds out Natasha isn’t dead (no one seems to want to arrest him for trying to kill her) and that the mystery message was a viral marketing campaign for a brand of tires (in itself a revelation – they had brands and adverts in the early USSR?). Los burns the plans for interplanetary travel he’s been working on (a curiously melancholy happy ending) and gets down to work and his marriage (‘I was insane when I shot at you. For the rest of my life, I’ll thank providence I missed’).
In its own way, Aelita has EVERYTHING: social realism, satirical comedy, historical document, fantasy, allegory, science fiction, simmering sex, a revolution, incredibly unlikely plot developments, neat tricks (want to know how to ditch a cop in Moscow? It involves leaving your galoshes in a pissoir), special effects (the spaceship is a Vernish contraption), arty décor and too many messages and morals for one movie.