15 January 2016

The 1924 film ‘Aelita’ fundamentally shaped the genre of sci-fi movies. The futuristic sets created by the STURM artist Alexandra Exter played an important role in the process.

By Daniel Urban

While humankind’s great and ancient myths and legends still tell of how we are tied to Fate and of a past world of gods and spirits, technology and outer space take their place in more recent fantastic literature, namely sci-fi. One could be forgiven thinking that where we once invented the gods, so that they could create and subjugate us, now we ourselves have created technology, so that it can equally delight and frighten us.

The genre of sci-fi was logically linked (at least temporarily) to the moment when the gods stepped off the stage of world history and technology advanced swiftly. It blossomed from the second half of the 19th century onwards and is now an integral part of art and Pop culture. While the genre had its beginnings in literature, nowadays the connection to film is just as strong. From dystopic sci-fi movies such as Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” up to more recent blockbusters à la “Matrix” or “Star Wars”, the genre has always evolved alongside social as well as political circumstances and reflected these – whether particularly substantially or not, remains undecided.

Reality and fiction become blurred

The main features of elements typical of the sci-fi genres already clearly discernible in the 1924 film “Aelita” made by Russian director Yakov Protazanov (1881-1945). And while it can be debated whether “Aelita” in its entirety is the first sci-fi flick or should be seen as a social drama with futuristic elements, it had an undeniably strong influence on further aesthetic developments in the genre in film and theater. The storyline is loosely inspired by Alexei Tolstoi’s eponymous novel and tells the story of Soviet engineer Loss (Nikolai Tsereteli) and his wife Natascha (Valentina Kuindzhi), shortly after the end of the Revolutionary war, in 1921. A large part of the film depicts an ever-escalating drama of jealousy between the married couple while the various lines of subplots give an insights into the everyday world of the still fledgling Soviet Union.

Aelita, Jakow Alexandrowitsch Protasanow, 1924, Soviet Union
Aelita, Jakow Alexandrowitsch Protasanow, 1924, Soviet Union

A recurring theme of the film outlines Loss’ escapism both with regard to his private life as well as the political situation that surround him, which expresses itself in his yearning for adventures in outer space. At the beginning of the movie, radio stations around Europe intercept a signal with the letter combination “Anta Odeli Uta”, which Loss immediately interprets and tries to decipher as a message from Mars. At the same time, disappointed by his daily routine, Loss increasingly drifts off into daydreams where he envisages the planet Mars and its inhabitants. The line dividing reality and fiction blurs and finally leads the protagonist on a journey to Mars, to the Mars princess Aelita.

Slaves on Mars

Above all, the film impresses and fascinates by its early depiction of space travel and the enactment of life on the so-called Red Planet. Russian-born Artist Alexandra Exter, (1882-1949) was responsible for the costumes and sets, and her costume sketches of the Mars inhabitants can be viewed in the current SCHIRN exhibition STURM FRAUEN alongside other works. With her work Exter emphatically influenced sci-fi films and the series that follow, for example, the genre classic “Metropolis”. But her aesthetic influence is also evident in TV series from the 1930s, such as “Flash Gordon”. At the Chamber Theatre in Moscow, the artist attracted attention with her avant-garde sets, strongly influenced by Cubism, and had already presented her work as a painter in numerous avant-garde exhibitions. And so Exter’s style, strongly influenced by Cubism as well as Suprematism and Futurism, becomes very apparent in both her sets and in the costumes for “Aelita”. Elements of Expressionist film, as demonstrated in an exemplary and groundbreaking manner in Robert Wiene’s 1920 film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, are also to be discerned in Exter’s work for “Aelita”.

Aelita, Jakow Alexandrowitsch Protasanow, 1924, Soviet Union
Aelita, Jakow Alexandrowitsch Protasanow, 1924, Soviet Union

In “Aelita”, Protazanov already makes good use of the possible critical substance of the genre and establishes a context to the era, which is why the film was banned for a long time in the Soviet Union. The political caste from Mars turned out to be a classic dictatorship that kept its workers like slaves and eliminated unwelcome opponents by freezing them. It is only the visitors from Earth who export their own worker’s revolution as it were to Mars, as a consequence of which the workers finally rid themselves of the ruling classes, except for Aelita herself. The Martian princess now allows herself to be celebrated as leader of the revolution, only then to severely subjugate all workers once again. So there’s clearly nothing new under the sun, not even on Mars.

Alexandra Exter Costume design for an inhabitant of Mars in Aelita, Collection Nina and Nikita Lobanov-Rostovsky Donation to the Charitable Fund, “Konstantinovsky”, 2013 © St Petersburg State Museum of Theatre