Vol 2, No 1
10 January 2000
Science Fiction of the Domestic
Iakov Protazanov's Aelita
Andrew J Horton
Iakov Protazanov's film Aelita (1924) has gone down in history with the interesting honour of being the first Soviet science fiction film. Critics have most vividly remembered its expensive Martian scenes with futuristic and Constructivist sets and costumes by Alexandra Ekster and Isaak Rabinovich and the infamous passage where the protagonists start a proletarian revolution on Mars. However, it is only really in the last decade that it has been understood that film is rather at odds with its reputation, and in reality it is neither science fiction nor a pro-revolutionary film.
The majority of the film is set in Moscow, where the action begins, develops and has its ultimate resolution. What action does occur on Mars is eventually shown to have been illusory and a result of hero's dissatisfied imagination, giving an end feeling of it being more of an anti-climatic non-science-fiction film if anything. Furthermore - as we shall see - the film may be pro-Communist but it has a decidedly anti-revolutionary feel about it, which goes in some way to explain the failure of the film with critics at the time. Aside from doubts about the film's commitment to the revolution, contemporary film-makers were scathing about the film's alleged continuity with the bourgeois cinema of the Tsarist age.
Despite heavy criticisms at the time from official Soviet critics, Aelita emerges today (largely due to a pioneering reading of the film by Ian Christie) as a highly complex film that holds as many breaks with pre-revolutionary cinema as it has continuities . It engages with a number of themes and styles and attempts to bring them together within a sophisticated plot which comments on the social, political and historical reality of 1920s Russia, as well as providing audiences with a ripping yarn.
To bring these themes together Protazanov employs a series of interlinking metaphors centring around images of differing times, differing spaces, journeys between these spaces, substitution and doubling, building and change, and oppositions between domestic life and fantasy. It is within this context that the film draws on the realm of science fiction - not as an end in its own right, but as part of Protazanov's rich metaphoric language to talk about earth-bound affairs.
Aelita: The plot
The film covers the years 1921-23 and is thus set in the period of Lenin's New Economic Policy (NEP) - the relaxation of the principles of Communism to allow small-scale capitalism in order to revitalise the post-war Russian economy. The film starts with the arrival of a mysterious and undecipherable radio message around the world. Los, the hero of the film, and his colleague Spiridonov are just two of many radio engineers around the globe to receive the message.
Los - a individualist dreamer and a hangover from the bourgeois intellectual classes - starts to think about the sender of the message. The action then switches to Mars, where we are introduced to Aelita, daughter of Tuskub, the ruler of a futuristic totalitarian state in which the oppressed working classes are put into cold storage when they are not needed. Aelita uses a new telescope to view life on Earth, and soon focuses on Los.
While the strange Earthling fills her dreams, Los becomes increasingly obsessed with the mysterious message and in turn fantasises about Aelita watching him. His marriage starts to crumble and his wife seemingly starts to fall for the charms of a aristocratic and opportunistic crook called Erlich (which means "honest" in German). As Los perceives his marriage falling apart so he becomes evermore drawn to the mysterious messages and away from his wife, Natasha. As a result of his dissatisfaction, he decides to accept a job as a civil engineer on a dam construction project in Eastern Russia, taking him away from home.
Meanwhile, Erlich schemes with his wife to rob Los's colleague, Spiridonov, and Kravtsev (a buffoonish amateur detective with almost Benny Hill-type qualities) starts to investigate the Erlichs. In the course of his bungled detective work, he comes to the conclusion that Spiridonov is part of the ring.
Spiridonov in fact emigrates to the West, and when Los returns home and shoots his wife a fit of jealousy over her supposed infidelity, he decides to disguise himself as his fellow engineer. Now back in Moscow and his wife out of the way, he can resume his obsession with Aelita. To reach her, he builds a spacecraft which he had designed with Spiridonov.
Los takes on Gusev, a revolutionary bored with his marriage to his doting wife, as a crew member and takes off for Mars, unaware that Kravtsev is on board investigating the person he believes to be Spiridonov. On Mars, Los and Aelita are joyfully united in an embrace, but Aelita momentarily becomes Natasha in Los's eye and he is seized by guilt. Aelita, who has also murdered to be with her beloved, and the Earthlings are then imprisoned by the dictatorial Tuskub.
Gusev manages to rouse their fellow imprisoned workers into a revolutionary fervour, and Aelita offers to lead the revolution. Gusev correctly smells a rat in a royal wanting to lead an anti-monarchist coup, but is too late to prevent what he suspects. Aelita uses the revolution to overthrow Tuskub and establish her own totalitarian regime. Horrified, Los wrestles with Aelita, now his foe, on a staircase, but when he succeeds in pushing her off to her death, he sees it is in fact Natasha he has been grappling with.
This confusing state of affairs is explained when Los awakens from a dream and finds himself on a station platform at the point shortly after he shot Natasha. The mysterious Martian message is revealed as being a fragment from an advertisement for tyres which has become lodged in Los's mind. Disturbed by his dream and the image of Natasha, he returns to the scene of his crime and finds that in fact his shots missed Natasha and she is still alive. He is able to banish his jealousy and the two are reunited. The scene is witnessed by Gusev and Masha, who, concerned about Los's state of mind, have followed him from the station where the couple met him. Erlich, meanwhile, gets a bizarre and ironic come-uppance by being accused of the murder of Spiridonov by the bungling Kravtsev.
As well as a happy ending in personal and moral terms, there is also a political one too: Los rejects his bourgeois and individualistic personal project of building a spacecraft and decisively realises he has to engage with social duty. Tearing the plans from their secret hiding place and thrusting them into the fire he announces to Natasha "We have different work to do."
The symbolism of time
In the course of the film time moves forward and progress and improvement are shown in action. As such, forward movement of time and more abstractly "the Future" are equated with improvement. Scenes at the start of the film show squalor, dysfunctionality and chaos; on the trains, at the refugee check point, the housing shortages and the opportunist criminality of "NEP men."
Later scenes illustrate how Lenin's NEP policies were effectively dealing with the post-civil war economic and social disorder. The refugee check point has no more work for Natasha and the orphanage where Natasha later works is peaceful and harmoniously efficient. Law and order is enforced; the NEPman Erlich is arrested (albeit for a crime he never committed and that never even happened) and the trains are more orderly. This outward social progress is mirrored in Los's personal life: his renewed commitment to his wife and to working for society and not just for his own personal ends.
In between, Protazanov uses images of building and rebirth to illustrate the process. Los works on a hydroelectric plant and then is later shown constructing his space ship and the orphanage is an unashamedly sentimental diversion from the main course of the plot just to use it as a symbol for the youthful regeneration in society. Images of modernity and efficiency abound from the opening sequence of electrical arcing, showing the power of industrial modernisation, to the rather more wasteful technological heights of Los's craft. A variety functions of Soviet life are shown to be running smoothly, with theatrical productions and parades to demonstrate and to celebrate this.
The plot, although in essence temporally linear in nature, contains some flashback sequences to the Past. "The Past" here is the past of pre-revolutionary times. "The Past," however, for Protazanov, as indeed for anyone in Russia immediately after the Revolution, takes on more than just a difference in temporal setting. It is inextricably linked to ideology, representing all the negative features of the Tsarist regime; including the sort of bourgeois attitudes of individualism that would allow a man to waste his energies on research into projects of no use to rebuilding society, such as research into space travel.
The Past, though, is not something the characters are protected from by fact of its temporal removal from them. It leaks through the barrier of the Revolution and into the chaos of the NEP world to infect them. This is most obviously illustrated in the character of Erlich and when Spiridonov emigrates he tells Los in a postcard "The past turned out to be stronger than I".
Los is caught in a similar struggle. Significantly, Los later disguises himself as Spiridonov and the two characters are played by the same actor (Nikolai Tsereteli), both factors serving to emphasise the similarities in ambivalent attitudes in the characters to former values. Los, however, is to win his battle.
As well as Los acting as a double for Spiridonov, he also acts as a double for Protazanov himself. The director was already important before the Revolution and would still be worthy of a place in the cinema history books had his career ended in 1917. Like many in the Russian film industry (who were largely middle- or upper-class, and therefore supported the Tsarist "Whites") he emigrated after the Revolution, working in Paris and Berlin.
His return to Russia after the Civil War was an enormous triumph for the new regime, who were able to make much political capital out of his return to the fold. He had continued to make films whilst in voluntary exile and was establishing a reputation as a major European director. He must have been aware that in returning to Russia he would have been turning his back on international success and a part of him may well have wondered what would have happened if he had stayed in the West. Certainly, he appeared to have remained wedded to the Past to some extent, since he retained a preference for using film crews with pre-revolutionary experience .
It is interesting to note that the film Aelita is loosely (very loosely in fact ) based around a novel by the same name by Alexei Tolstoi, a relative of the great Russian writer Lev Tolstoy and an upper-class émigré who - like Protazanov - also returned to Soviet Russia.
As such Los, the "'bourgeois specialist' ostensibly committed to the Revolution, but still emotionally, perhaps unconsciously, unadjusted to the new order," is also a double of Protazanov and Tolstoi. Similarly, Protazanov's experience of being caught between East and West is played out in the film as well.
The symbolism of location
Just as the past is used to signify a different attitude, so the different spatial elements in Aelita play a similar function. Several locations in the film are depicted or referred to, all carrying a distinct meaning relating to a particular mental attitude. Journeys between these locations can be seen as not just spatial but ideological, and as having the nature of an odyssey of personal discovery. The concept of travel even emerges from the mysterious message the radio stations receive when at the end we find out that it is from an advertisement for car-tyres.
Mention has already been made of Spiridonov's journey to the West. Here the overlap between spatial and temporal meaning is strong as can be seen in Spiridonov's postcard to Los. The West holds the same values as the Past.
If the West corresponds to the Past, then the East corresponds to the Future. It is the place where the rebuilding of Russia is to take place, like the hydroelectric plant where Los goes to console himself for six months and finds the inner strength to go back to his wife. It is the place where Gusev and Masha are heading for as they wait at the station at the end of the film. It's seen as a place involving participation in life, society and its regeneration, and since it is also the Future we are not presented with any problems that might occur there.
This contrasts with Moscow, which is the home of the bourgeois Los and his wife Natasha and the place where they get caught up in the strife which results in Los's individualistic dreams that lead him astray from the true Communist cause. Moscow could be seen as the Present, the time of immediate concern, containing the problems that need solving in the context of the film.
More positive aspects of Moscow's character come out in its depiction as the scene of domestic life. It could easily be argued that this is one of the central pillars of meaning in Aelita. The whole film plots Los's dissatisfaction, rejection and eventual reconciliation with domestic life and shows how his inability to run his personal life overflows into inability to interact with society and fulfil the goals of Communism. Full realisation of this theme, though, comes only in comparison with Moscow's anti-domestic counterpart - Mars.
Reasserting the domestic
Before analysing further the symbolism of Mars it is worth taking a small detour to consider why Protazanov should chose this theme of domestic life as one of his central themes. That he wanted to use his film to praise marriage and domesticity might now seem a rather twee concept in today's terms.
In the early 1920s things were not so clear-cut, though. Aleksandra Kollontai, the Communist radical feminist, had already published her collected essays on sexual relations under the title Novaya moral i rabochii klass (New Morality and the Working Class, 1918). In this book, she advocated a view of "love-play" that loosened the image of traditional monogamy (although her critics have, admittedly, exaggerated her writings and events in her personal life to discredit her feminist philosophy).
Also at this time, common-law relationships were given the same legal strength as full marriages, partly as a matter of revolutionary principle to overthrow the old bourgeois morality and partly to recognise the reality as it stood - common-law relationships were already a fact.
Soviet males were delighted with this new sexual order and as a result the fluidity and casualness of relationships increased dramatically. This process was assisted by the revolutionary mood and the disjointed nature of post-war NEP society and the disruption to pre-war relationships that the turmoil of war had caused. One unfortunate side-effect was that many Soviet women found themselves swiftly rejected when they became pregnant.
Assaulted both by male opportunism and revolutionary feminist ideology, conventional relationships were on the decline and the burden on the state increased as the number of orphans and absent fathers who refused to pay alimony mushroomed. This was aggravated by the fact that adoption was made illegal in 1918. As a result of the Revolution, the First World and the Civil Wars and the new notions of morality, there was such a number of orphans (7 million in 1921) that the state was unable to cope and "gangs of homeless children, viscous and undomesticated... infested squalid city slums" .
It must have seemed to any observer arriving from abroad at that time - as Protazanov had done - that, however noble the concept of sexual freedom and the creation of new less repressive notions of family units as revolutionary ideals may have been, it was ruining the very fabric of society and a return to traditional family and society values was called for.
Mars: The anti-domestic
Analysing Mars we can see it is Los's refuge from the world of hard practical problems - making a relationship, a marriage and society work. Dissatisfied with the prosaic qualities of domestic life resulting in his relationship with Natasha, he seeks a higher more exalted form of love. Aelita is a queen, and her appearance contrasts markedly with Natasha's, with Aelita looking like a classical statue with hard sculpted hair and a marble-white face, moving in slow, gracious but somewhat stiff movements. Even Aelita's very name suggests a classical sort of detachment.
Natasha, however, is portrayed by Protazanov as the more attractive of the two. Her face is radiant and framed by soft wispish curls and her movements free and natural. To emphasise Protazanov's approval of her, she is a committed Communist and engages actively with society to help others; she works is at a refugee check-point and then an orphanage and participates in voluntary events in her spare time. Natasha - in contrast to Aelita - is a distinctly Russian name.
Natasha as well as getting heavily involved in public-spirited activities is also devoted to their domestic life. She is frequently shown in a domestic setting whereas Mars in general, and Aelita in particular, exhibit no such domestic acts as eating, cooking, or caring for people. Even when Tuskub sleeps he does so in a very un-room-like setting; indeed the atmosphere is more like that of a public space such as a square or a park. A direct contrast is made by adjoining shots of the regal Aelita with Natasha hard at work washing.
As well as contrasting differences in the two women, these scenes show how in Los's mind Aelita is, in effect, the result of his opinions of Natasha and a substitution for her. Later this substitution is stressed still further when Aelita becomes Natasha, first when the former is embraced by Los and secondly when Los tries to push Aelita off the staircase.
Los's fantasies totally enthrall him. Aelita, already composed of everything which Los isn't happy in Natasha, is depicted as being formed in accordance with the fantasies of male domination in a relationship which seems almost narcissistic and adolescent; she is naive and manipulable, she needs to be taught by Los how to kiss; she is obsessed by his image and desperate to try and see him; she is prepared to sacrifice herself for him, putting herself in danger for him and even murdering to get to him.
Mars: Out of time
Whereas Moscow, East and West can easily be equated with a temporal meaning, Mars stands curiously resistant to being placed on this axis. The appearance is futuristic, with Ekster and Rabinovich's famed set designs and costumes. Even the technology shows evidence of being far ahead of Earth with the capacity to freeze and unfreeze people and an interplanetary telescope with impressive resolution.
With this degree of advancement a Utopia might be expected but the political mood turns out to be definitely medieval, with a harshly hierarchical militarised feudal system, devoid of emotion, in operation. The whole atmosphere is caught between sheer idealistic hypermodernity and its harsh angularity and oppressive qualities.
The world of this fantasy is so strong that Los is able to project a whole scenario of him going to Mars into a dream. The ridiculousness of the whole journey is shown by the fact that all the characters on the journey are in disguise: Los as Spiridonov, Gusev as a woman (his own clothes having been hidden by Masha as a vain attempt to prevent him from voyaging to Mars) and Kravtsov pretending to be what he aspires to - a detective.
The journey is achieved by means of the spacecraft that Los has built. The vehicle seems to have not very much in common with modes of transport, the interior being easily mistakem for an ordinary room in a flat. The domesticity of the situation is emphasised by the household items around the room, such as a table and chairs, and by the resemblance of the high-tech gadgetry to ordinary household plumbing. In addition, the three characters act out such domestic scenes as packing a suitcase when they are preparing to leave the spaceship.
Revolution: Vent of restlessness?
For Los the trip to Mars is a regression into fantasy as escape from married life and this too can be extended to Gusev (although Los's later awakening implies Gusev's marital problems may never have actually occurred). While Los is the bourgeois central character, Gusev is the proletarian hero. Soldier, accordionist, Bolshevik and founder of four Soviet Republics, Gusev suffers from the same discontent with married life that plagues Los.
Masha, like Natasha, is cast as a caring domestic person and this is emphasised by her job as a nurse. The extra-marital element Gusev needs in his life, though, is not erotic fantasy as with Los but action and excitement; in short - revolution.
This, superficially a device in the plot to get a Bolshevik on Mars with Los to start a revolution, is a crucial part of the film's central meaning. The implication is two-fold: firstly, that revolution interferes with domestic life, and secondly that revolution is the expression of male restlessness and dissatisfaction with a stable personal life. This could be read as a damning indictment of the men such as Lenin and Stalin who had led the October Revolution and who still led Soviet Russia. Aelita, taken to its logical conclusion, would therefore imply that the leaders of the Revolution were unstable men with unsuccessful personal lives, an inability to relate to society and perhaps childishly shallow visions of human relationships.
Further criticism of revolution ensues as Gusev's Martian uprising unfolds. Revolution is shown to be susceptible to manipulation as Aelita uses it to overthrow Tuskub and set up her own regime. Hovering between the lines just waiting to be read is the inference that the causes of the October Revolution had been portrayed and Russia was once again under a form of repressive dictatorship acted out for the personal gain of the leaders.
For Los, Aelita's seizing of the revolution for herself is a personal disaster and the revolt on Mars shows up the hollowness of his fantasies. Aelita, the supposedly innocent, manipulable and tameable, turns out to be scheming, manipulative and untameable. She isn't even herself and is revealed to Los as the substitution for Natasha that she really is, all of which proves to Los that he is as unable to sustain the fantasy as much as it is unable to sustain him. Personal fantasy is no substitute for engaging with reality.
He returns to the real world and rushes back home where, to his delight, he finds that he has not killed Natasha after all and his reconciliation with her and with reality can begin. The revolution on Mars has dissolved from the real world and we are left unsure about whether we should even be concerned about the failure of this uprising that we've seen. In reality it never happened, but its failure still delivers clear signals about revolutions and their limitations. The suggestion that Mars might be an Aesopian device to represent Russia is reinforced by colour associations - the red planet and the Red country.
Aelita: A film before its time?
If Aelita is not a science-fiction film then what can we say about it? Clearly, it is a film that brings together a number of subtextual readings and is just as adventurous in the scale of its underlying elements as it is in terms of the different acting styles and plots it tries to combine. It is not about Mars but life in Russia in general and Moscow specifically. It is a portrait of a man's erotic escapism and how this effects not just his ability to function within a relationship and within society.
The film praises domesticity and married life at a time when society was experimenting with the nature and meaning of relationships and debating their role in a revolutionary society. It is a film that looks to rebuilding, consolidation, progress and the future and rejects revolution as an unachievable Utopian ideal open to hijack. Undoubtedly in this respect Protazanov saw the future of Russia lying not with revolution but with evolution.
This is also, however, a film with a strong personal element. Protazanov, son of a merchant and recently returned from a long period abroad, can be seen to be personified in Los, the man caught between the Past and the Future, and also as representing Alexei Tolstoi, the author of the film's nominal source.
Whilst many critics at the time were disappointed with Aelita and sneered at its ideology, its extravagant expense its lack of formal experimentation, its appeal to a mass market, its mixture of genres and its inability to become a prototype for future Russian film-makers, Protazanov in the long term proved to have predicted the winning side on many of these points.
Audiences were far more appreciative of Protazanov's cinema than that of, say, Sergei Eisenstein or Dziga Vertov. As Stalin started to put his personal stamp on cinema, the formal experimentation that had prevailed in Aelita's day was cast out in preference to the sort of mass-appeal that Protazanov wanted, not just in Aelita, but all his films. This led Protazanov to produce more films than any of the experimentalists, such as Eisenstein, or Vertov, over the next ten years.
Although the dream device in the plot was much criticised at the time, Protazanov effectively refuted his critics by using a similar dream device later in his film Tommy and by the 1940s it had become a standard of Western cinema for psychological effect and today the device is so common it is considered a cliché.
Although science fiction would not immediately take off in the Soviet Union as a film genre, it had an important effect outside of the country, inspiring Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926) both with its sets and costumes and it distopian view of a futuristic society. Furthermore, Protazanov's treatment of science fiction was to become mirrored in later Soviet "science-fiction" works such as Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979) and Aleksandr Sokurov's Dni zatmeniya (Days of the Eclipse, 1989), both of which also stripped away the science-fiction elements of the novels on which they were based in order to focus more on earth-bound moral and philosophical issues. It is also interesting to note that both the later films also follow Aelita's lead in being nominally based on a work of fiction which is so substantially reworked that the film becomes almost totally independent of the book save for the character names and a few plot characteristics.
The ideas Protazanov held on the nature of relationships also came to prevail in Russian thinking. By the end of the 1920s, discussions on "new morality" were over and there was a strong call among Russian people for a return to older family values, an opinion that enabled Stalin to introduce marriage laws at least as harsh as those in place before the Revolution .
Aelita was never rehabilitated, though, perhaps because of its attitude to revolution. The film, in this respect, predicted too well for the authorities, and by the time the 1930s had come many Russian citizens would have undoubtedly found Protazanov's insinuations on the destructive and corrupting powers of revolution to be all too accurate.
Andrew J Horton, 10 January 2000
Many of the ideas in this article arose from discussions of Aelita with Julian Graffy of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, London, and without his input this article would not have been possible.
Christie I and Graffy J, Protazanov and the Continuity of Russian Cinema, National Film Theatre, London, 1993
Kollontai A, Selected Articles and Speeches, International Publishers Co
Stites R, The Women's Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, Bolshevism 1860-1930, Princeton University Press, 1978
Taylor R and Christie I (eds), Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russsian and Soviet Cinema, Routledge, 1991
Tolstoi A, Aelita, Firebird Publications, 1987
Youngblood D, Movies for the Masses: Popular Cinema and Soviet Society in the 1920s, Cambridge University press, 1992
1. I Christie, "Down to Earth: Aelita Relocated," in Inside the Film Factory: New Approaches to Russsian and Soviet Cinema, (eds R Taylor and I Christie), Routledge, 1991, pp 80 -102
To buy these books see the bibliography!
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