Aelita: Queen of Mars: Reflection or Response?

by yonirusnak

Cinema is a pervasive medium that changes with every new film released. All films are open to be interpreted as a reflection or response to society depending on the viewer’s prejudices.  Aelita: Queen of Mars does reflect some aspects of society at the time but this essay will show, through theoretical writings of Ian Christie (Film and Media professor at Birkbeck University) and other film scholars, that it is more a response to its industrial, generic and cinematic context. To begin, this essay will establish a base understanding of the social, industrial and political context under which Aelita: Queen of Mars was produced. This will be followed by an analytical interpretation of the films ideological position in relation to the industry and society.  Furthermore it will explore the aesthetical decisions made in regards to narrative form and set design, and how these might be viewed as responses to the industries needs. Finally through an understanding of the films chosen genre, science fiction, and its elaborate promotional campaign, this essay seeks to argue that Aelita: Queen of Mars can in fact be perceived to ultimately be a response to the industrial, generic and cinematic social-historical context of its time.

To understand whether a film is reflective of its time or simply a response to the sociological and industrial environment it is important to first understand the period. Aelita: Queen of Mars (From here on described as Aelita) was produced in the year 1924 during the New Economic Policy (NEP). This was a unique period in the Soviet Unions history that would not be seen again until 1985 (Perestroika & Glasnost). What made the NEP so different to other Soviet periods was Lenin’s understanding and belief that for a quick economic recovery the Soviet Union needed to adopt a more lax attitude to socialist ideologies in order to allow competition and create revenue (Kepley, 1983).  Kepley (1996, 33) describes the economic situation of the NEP as a ‘mixed-market’, one which allowed for some industries to compete head to head in the same manner as capitalism (cinema, shops, restaurants) while others were firmly controlled by government departments (foreign trade, transportation). Lenin even went so far as to not only allow but also encourage foreign investment in film studios to facilitate capital and rebuild the industry (Kepley, 1983, 12). One example of such co-operations was the formation of Mezhrabpom-Rus; a production company, which was fifty percent owned by the German aid organisation ‘World International Relief’ (Christie,1991, 84). Production companies such as these were required to maintain their own financial stability without help from the government while simultaneously the government controlled all import and export of films as well as a distribution monopoly through its central organisation Goskino (Thompson, 2010, 109). Therefore the environment in which Aelita was produced needs to be understood as one that not only required a socialist ideology but also a considerable knowledge of business and how to turn a profit.

Lenin is often quoted as declaring cinema the most important of all the arts. Scholars have also understood that this was not because he saw any particular merit in the medium’s artistic value but rather he understood its potential as a tool for propaganda (Kenez, 2001, 27). Of the three functions Lenin foresaw as the main goals for cinema, the most relevant here is his claim “that there should be artistic propaganda for ideas in the form of entertainment films, depicting fragments of life and permeated with our ideas” (Taylor & Christie, 1988, 57). This, combined with Lunacharsky’s (chairman of the Artistic Council of Russfilm) “declared strategy to counter the appeal of foreign cinema- then flooding Soviet screens- by competing in entertainment terms with ‘relaxed’ ideological requirements.”(Christie,1991,  86) may offer great insight into the ideological portrayal of Aelita and its plot. Aelita could be said to meet all the criterion set by Lenin, as it represented the current lifestyle of the Soviet Union while offering socialist ideals, however critics of the period viewed Aelita as an ‘Escapist, Westernised’ film that was too ‘lean’ in ideological force (Christie, 1991, 86). The general plot of the Aelita follows ‘Los’ through his daily life during the end of the revolution (1921-1923) and his daydreams of escaping to Mars; kenez (2001, 43) notes that one was never to portray characters desiring to leave the Soviet Union, not even as a joke. Here we see the complaints of the critics come to fruition as the majority of the story does not depict a necessarily socialist view, but rather presents its characters all coping with their new environment while offering a protagonist dreaming of escape. However Aelita does overall portray a socialistic view. This is observed both through the Martian revolt towards the end of the film, and the ultimate realisation of ‘Los’ that “there are more important things to do than daydream” a reference to building a new communist society. These two scenes complete the transformation of the protagonist into a ‘good’ Soviet citizen, one that understands his place in building a new nation. What separates this film from others of the era is that it did not simply portray a socialist protagonist battling the bourgeois ‘pigs’, as was common at the time, but instead captured the essence of the period and attempted to reflect its unique position in history as a period of transition. ‘Los’, who Christie (1991, 91) points out is of the bourgeois society, embraces the new social structure in which a melting pot of various characters are all trying to find their way in the new social order.

The previous section indicates that there certainly are socialist aspects to Aelita, however; on the whole it does appear to subordinate its ideological aspects to ones of entertainment value. During this period a majority of filmmakers believed that film was to be an ‘intellectual artwork’, that its educational message should be its principle function. Kuleshov mused that “Art is only bewitching and attractive when it is not quite intelligible” (Taylor & Christie, 1988, 45). Similarly Christie notes that most of the critics of the time preferred the works of more leftist filmmakers such as Vertov, Eisenstein and the LEF Group (Christie, 1991, 86). Nevertheless Lunacharsky understood that such films would not necessarily appeal to the masses, as the majority of the Soviet Union were peasants, illiterate in cultural teachings. Both Lunacharsky and Lenin understood the task of cinema to primarily be propaganda, but more then just propaganda Lenin believe that art should be understood and loved by the masses (Taylor and Christie, 1988, 51). If it is understood that the governing powers of the Soviet Union believed all should understand the cinema, it can be argued that Aelita’s lax ideology and entertainment value is appropriate to the requirements of the industry. Mezhrabpom-Rus, prior to producing Aelita posted an advertisement for a script writing competition that read:

“The theme may reflect the past and present or revolutionary and old world Russia or contemporary life either a realistic or a romantic treatment. But we do require fullness of content, clarity and entertainment in the plot, drawn in cheerful and wholesome tones, complexity of action unfolding within the framework of the beauties of nature, and a variety of experiences for the heroes.” (Christie, 1991, 85)

This is further evidence that while a majority of the industry still preferred making ideologically charged, artistic films, Mezhrabpom-Rus, Lunacharsky and Lenin all understood that the industry of the time required more than just ideology, it required entertainment value that could be understood by all. Subsequently Mezhrabpom-Rus and Protazanov had succeeded in creating a masterpiece that both appealed to the masses and dealt with the social changes of NEP, while still offering an ideological ending. Through this understanding of the industrial and ideological needs during NEP and Aelita’s entertainment value and ideological subtext, it can be argued that even though Aelita does mirror the society of NEP life, rather than a reflection, it is more accurately defined as a projection of the cinematic requirements of the time.

To better understand how Aelita is constructed as a response to industry requirements this essay will now focus on two issues of aesthetics. The first of which is Aelita’s ‘Hollywood’ approach to filmic form. Cinema in the Soviet Union during the NEP was dominated by Montage theory. Montage was an Avant-garde movement that envisioned filmic meaning as being constructed though the juxtaposition of two or more images to create new ideas, greater than those of the original images individually (Bordwell 1972, 9). In 1919 Lev Kuleshov (a leading Montage theorist) (Taylor and Christie, 1988, 46) wrote that “Montage is to cinema what colour composition is to paint”. What’s more, many film scholars believe Montage theory was the defining movement of the period in Soviet Cinema (Bordwell, 1972, 9). This may be one reason why many academics have overlooked Aelita’s significance. Indeed Aelita was a film not of its time in Soviet National Cinema. Christie (1991, 81) articulates that it “was made by the wrong director at a time when early Soviet production was being valued for quite different qualities.” The very fact that Kristin Thompson’s ‘Film History: An Introduction’ does not mention Aelita amongst the most important films of its period indicates just how out of step Aelita was with the Montage movement. In order better understand Protazanov’s chosen ‘Hollywood’ form, it is important to anaylse Aelita against the industry of the time.

During the NEP the domestic capabilities of the industry were still extremely weak. This meant that the film industry relied heavily on imported films as part of the economic recovery. An investigation completed in 1923 found that 99 percent of films screened during the NEP were imports (Thompson, 2010, 109). Furthermore Lunacharsky recognized that “in the present impoverished state of the Russian economy we cannot count on producing films of a purely artistic, literary or even scientifically objective character and competing with foreign firms” (Taylor & Christie, 47). Consequently it can be argued that although the industry norm was to produce films of an artistic integrity, Mezhrabpom-Rus accurately identified the need for clarity of narrative. In an article for KinoKultura, Christie (1993) describes Aelita as a semi-commercial strategic with the Western style Spectacular, arguably the exact sort of film that was needed to compete against the bombardment of foreign films. The form chosen by Protazanov while not conforming to industry standards of the time could be argued to be an astute observation of what was both needed for the industry and desired by the audiences, and therefore an appropriate response to its social context. Steven Hill speculates, “This type of escapism evidently reflected the hopes of many Soviet movie-goers in those days before the final elimination of free enterprise in Stalin’s Five Year Plans (1928 and after).“ (Hill, 1972, p.21-21)

The second aesthetically critical choice that provides a key analysis of industry context is Aelita’s set design. Youngblood (1993, 94) proclaims that Aelita ”is chiefly remembered for its Martian sequences (especially for the constructivist sets and costumes designed by Isaak Rabinovich and Aleksandra Ekster)”. Although the Martian scenes only amount to a fraction of the overall film, it’s unique design may offer some incite into how Protazanov used mise-en-scene to weave elements of montage theory into an essentially ‘Westernised’ science fiction film. David Bordwell (1972, 12) writes that the Constructivist (also known as futurist or modernist) movement had already been established in Russia by 1918. Bordwell (1972, 12) builds strong connections between Montage theorists and constructivist art explaining how it greatly influenced prominent Montage filmmakers of the period; such as Vertov and Eisenstein. In addition, Christie (1991, 92) explains that Protazanov “had spent his French sojourn amid the Russian emigres of the Ermolieff group…  then preoccupied with introducing modernist art and design into their productions.” As a result it should be understood that the use of constructivism in the design of the Martian sets was both a calculated and considered decision on behalf of Protazanov and Mezhrabpom-Rus. The verdict to enlist Ekster, who was already well established as a leading constructivist artist, should be perceived as an industrial response to combine Aelita with parts of the montage and elitist movements. Moreover Christie (1991, 92) continues his analysis by stating, “Only by creating a cultural difference could they hope to compete with the efficiency and universal appeal of American Entertainment…Aelita deployed the latest fruits of the close relationship that linked avant-garde Russian artists with the theater”. By incorporating a modernist design that was unique to Soviet cinema, Protazanov cleverly identified a method of separating his production from imported American ones, while also linking itself with parts of the Montage movement. This combination clearly identifies Protazanov’s actions as a response to the industry requirements unique to the NEP. One further argument could be made that it begun the cultural education of the masses. Previously this essay pointed out that Lenin believed art should be intelligible by all and not just the intelligentsia. In fusing constructivist art with a ‘Hollywood’ style cinematic experience, Protazanov was able to facilitate a response to industrial needs (remembering that Mezhrabpom-Rus required the approval of Goskino) and educate peasants in cultural matters, even if only subliminally.

Finally, this essay will address the industrial measures taken in the promotion of Aelita and the audience’s response. The film industry during 1924 was one in disarray and with little resources. In 1922 and 1923 the Bolsheviks raised taxes on movie rentals and movie tickets so high that it became almost impossible for movie-goers to afford such entertainment (Kenez, 2001, 36). By 1923 all private film companies had shut down with the exception of Mezhrabpom-Rus (Kenez, 2001, 39). There was great pressure for films to be profitable, as only those who could survive on revenues recouped from the box-office stayed afloat. Aelita’s success at the time can be attributed to a number of variables however the two main elements that will be addressed here are its use of Science fiction and its ‘Western-style’ publicity campaign. Mezhrabpom-Rus ingeniously capitalized on the growing interest in science fiction during the NEP. “What undoubtedly must have seemed most attractive about filming Aelita was the prospect of Soviets cinema’s first Science Fiction Film”(Christie, 1991, 96). Aelita was an adaption from a popular science fiction novel written by Aleksei Tolstoi (Youngblood, 1993, 94). The use of an increasingly popular genre and writer indicates a keen understanding of the audience’s desires on behalf of Mezhrabpom-Rus. Moreover by producing Aelita as their first major production Mezhrabpom-Rus can be said to have been responding to the industry trends by understanding the inherent potential for profits found in science fiction.

The second industry response is apparent in Aelita’s Western-style promotional campaign. Youngblood (1993, 94) describes the campaign as “Something of a scandal… which stressed the scale and expense of the production-thousands of rubles, thousands of extras, and thousands of meters of film shot.” After months of carefully leaking rumors regarding its big budget, extravagant production and talented cast, Mezhrabpom-Rus began implementing numerous promotional stunts (Christie, 1991, 28). Mezhrabpom-Rus were one of the first Soviet cinema firms to create a press bureau to publicise its films (Kepley, 1983, 13). Subsequently all of these efforts led to an overwhelming success at the box office. Although Aelita’s significant is largely overlooked today, its popularity at the time was palpable. Christie (1991, 82) describes how “Demand for tickets was unprecedented” and that the “huge crowds apparently prevented Protazanov himself from attending the premier”. This confirms that Mezhrabpom-Rus were able to correctly respond to industry requirements of the NEP and design marketing strategies which they implemented in such a way as to both appease government authorities and audiences a like, while still turning a profit.

In conclusion this essay has shown how one might interpret various element of a films social and industrial context to conclude that it is a response to, rather than a reflection of its social-historical context. By describing the social conditions of the time and analyzing Aelita’s ideological substance this essay has shown how its lax attitude to socialist ideology was in fact a response to the industry needs. Furthermore though the aesthetical decisions of narrative form and mise-en-scene, combined with Aelita’s genre and promotion campaign this essay has endeavored to illustrate how one might argue for a films nature as a response to the industrial, generic and social context.


D. Bordwell, 1972, ‘The Idea of Montage in Soviet Art and Film’, Cinema Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring, pp. 9 – 17

D. Youngblood, 1993, ‘Untitled review’, Russian Review, Vol. 52, No. 1, January, pp. 94 – 95

I. Christie, ‘Down to Earth: Aelita relocated’, Inside the Film Factory ed. Richard Taylor & Ian Christie, London & NY: Routledge, (1991) p. 80 – 102

I. Christie, ‘Protazanov: A Timely Case for Treatment’, KinoKultura, No. 9, July, 2005

K. Thompson, D. Bordwell, 2010, Film History: An introduction Third Edition, McGraw-Hill, New York

P. Kenez, 2001, Cinema and Soviet Society: From the Revolution to the Death of Stalin, I. B. Tauris, UK

R. Taylor & I. Christie (eds), 1988, The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documentation, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts

S. Hill, 1972, ‘A Quantitative View of Soviet Cinema’, Cinema Journal, Vol.11, No. 2, Spring, pp. 18 – 25

V. Kepley, 1983, ‘The workers’ International Relief and the Cinema of the Left 1921 -1935’, Cinema Journal, Vol. 23, No. 1, Fall p. 7

V. Kepley, 1996, ‘The First “Perestroika”: Soviet Cinema under the First Five-Year Plan’, Cinema Journal, Vol. 35, No.4, Summer, pp. 31 – 53