Protazanov - 2013 08 24 - Aelita

Soviet Union 1924
Directed by Yakov Protazanov
Running time: 113 minutes

Forgive me this auteurist detour. Instead of concentrating on Protazanov and his relatively simple constructivist tale, let me direct your attention to the dazzling work of Aleksandra Ekstra. Her set and costume design are really what lend this film its lasting impact. Feudal life on the red planet is all flow and ripple for the nobles (known as “The Elders”). Handsome asymmetries and geometric figures range from the Cubo-Futurist to the Suprematist. Musicality seems embedded in Ekstra’s surfaces. There is a visual tactility to the thousand harp strings suspended from the red heavens. Our eyes arpeggiate a tune as our focus sweeps across those glistening guts. To me, it sounds something like the triangulated arithmetic of Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, even though I know that comes about fifty years later. Meanwhile, back on Earth, the lines are vertical and angular. Where empty space hung cold in the Martian skies, on Earth there are people. Workers. Soldiers. Backsliding, deluded imperialists. At times, and without speaking from the vantage of history, it feels like aliens have already made contact there. Vacuum tubes, headsets and comrades whose foreheads are pressed deep into the sex of some radio-powered machine. Back on Mars. I’m reminded of the great French comic artist, Jean Giraud, nom de plume Moebius. Organic matter and the purity of artistic feeling intermingle. A Martian door opens like a dragon’s wing unfolding or the bellows of an accordion contracting its pleats. Aelita, The Queen of Mars is a kind of troika-chested Cleopatra decked out in ‘20s alien Vogue. The look of her time is Art Deco Ideal. And while the tranquility of the Agora suggests all is well on Mars, it is not. The red planet proletariat are being herded and thrashed, shuffled and stacked. Consumed for energy. The ideal is a veneer and any good communist knows veneers are for scraping. To expose the rotten wood beneath is to set the conditions for revolution. Tabula rasa. Now seems like a good time to quote an American review of AELITA published in 1924:

In Moscow they are devoting 75,000 feet of motion-picture films to the portrayal of life in a newer, redder world. The story of “Aelita,” prepared by a degenerate scion of the Tolstoi stock, depicts a cubistic, futuristic and geometric sphere in which Communists have it all their own way – as if it were their heaven…that it may spread the revolutionary propaganda and confirm the hold of the terrorist regime.
-Author Unknown, New Worlds for the Reds

Terrorist… 1924…

Switching pace, let me issue this challenge to you tonight: watch this film from the inside. RiffTrax is great, but it’s not the only way to experience the past. If your feet are planted in 2013, you might be tempted to come to this film with the defensive scorn of hindsight. You might laugh when the film is not saying something funny. Y’know, because we’ve learned so much since 1924. Haven’t we? Then again, our strongest enemies are still terrorists. Maybe not everything’s changed.

24 August 2013