I've heard so much about Yakov Protazanov's Aelita: Queen of Mars that it was a genuine puzzlement when most of the nearly two-hour film was spent dramatizing the marital problems of one Engineer Los (Nikolai Tsereteli)--what did I care who his wife Natasha (Vera Kuindzhi) cavorted with, when all I wanted to see was more of Aelita (Yuliya Solntseva) and Mars?
But as the film progresses, Los' dilemma grows more fascinating. A subtext emerges: Natasha is infatuated with various bourgeoisie indulgences (a sack of sugar, a box of chocolates) presented by a tenant as his way of seducing her; Los himself represents Soviet engineering at its purest and most idealistic...probably why Aelita, watching from a telescope, falls in love with him. Other characters include Kravtsov (Igor Ilinsky), an amateur sleuth so mercilessly parodied I take it sleuth wannabes who are really informants are not approved of in official Soviet society (or is this subversive subtext?), and veterans like Gusev (Nikolai Batalov), who cheerfully carries out an affair with a Martian handmaiden, are applauded (so civilian informers are frowned upon, military adulterers not so?).
When Los finally makes it to Mars (at around the 90 minute mark), it's a visual delight, as if piano wire and canvas sails are all that hold the massive walls and columns together (you wonder if this is a low budget feature; if so, the director made good use of what was available to create a unique look). Martian fashion is a delight; they wear bizarre headgear that often look cannibalized from television antennas, or in the case of Tuskub, King of Mars (Constantin Eggert), what looks like an arrow pointed to 'medium rare.' Costumes vary in detail from glitter to gold foil to, in the case of Aelita, a flange spiralling so that a miniature Alpine skier can have a great time slaloming down her body. Mars looks as if some genius had ransacked a machine shop, a grade-school art department, and a stone quarry for ideas and material.
What happens in Mars is no less witty (or bizarre SPOILERS): in around twenty minutes' time, Los wins the queen over, stages a revolt, and establishes a "Soviet Republic of Mars" (Long live the revolution!). Again here I'm guessing that Mars represents decadent Western culture (how communists portray capitalist society is Soviet filmmaking at its most fanciful, and entertaining), ripe for the picking by the right Soviet idealist. Then--therevolt collapses, Los finds himself murdering his wife (again), and wakes up to find that it's all a dream. I don't know how to take that, except maybe Protazanov is advocating revolution at a slower pace (as a rebuke to more radical elements), one engineering project at a time. Then there's the fact that a fellow engineer named Spiridinov, also played by Tsereteli, winds up dead, murdered by the villainous tenant (that I haven't figured out yet).
Seems like chunks were cut out of the film, what with the wife veering wildly from beleagured housewife to licentious adulterer, without giving either Los or the audience the chance to catch our bearings. Nevertheless, a wonderful fantasy, very much worth seeing.