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The dialectics of interplanetary revolution

The Pacific Film Archive is currently running a series on Soviet science fiction, surely the genre than which nothing greater can be thought. Today’s entry was the amazing 1924 Bolsheviks on Mars masterpiece Аэлита. Engineer Loss, a man who “is only happy when he is building a new Russia,” is aggrieved at his wife’s apparent interest in their NEPman spiv of a lodger. Receiving a mysterious radio message that he takes to be a message from Mars, he begins to fantasize about building a rocket to travel to a Mars that appears to have built entirely in the style of Tatlin’s Tower (Wikipedia’s claim that “this article or section contains information about expected future buildings or structures” seems rather optimistic). Once there, he romances the titular Aelita, figurehead Queen, and with the help of her and a Red Army officer, leads a communist revolution. The ending, however, is intriguingly ambiguous. Once the revolution has succeeded, Aelita declares herself Queen and ruler, and turns the army on the rebellious proletarians, for which Loss kills her. At this point, he is awoken from his daydream when he sees the mysterious “Martian” message on a billboard; it turns out to have been a snippet of an advertising slogan. This ending clearly undermines the simple propagandist tones of the revolutionary scenes on Mars; but more interesting is what precisely is being undermined in these scenes.

There’s an interesting article that suggests that the film shows “the future of Russia lying not with revolution but with evolution,” but I don’t know that that interpretation is really credible. The film, after all, takes place after the Russian revolution, and doesn’t question either that revolution or the proletarian revolution on Mars. The villains of the piece, instead, are Loss’s lodger, a NEPman whose corruption is eventually uncovered by the revolutionary authorities, and Aelita herself, who attempts to use a simulacrum of revolution to cement her own power. Loss and his wife, on the other hand, consistently work for the development of a “new Russia.” I’m tempted to read the film more as an almost Maoist injunction to remember the importance of class struggle within the revolution. The ambiguity, that is, is dialectical, as can be seen, indeed, in the constructivist architecture of Mars, showing technology in both its liberating and repressive aspects.

Аэлита is available on the internet, but unfortunately only in a slightly dubiously edited musical version.