This was another time that the lovely T jogged me out of my lethargic stupor and prevailed on me to go to something I had been about to blow off: "Aelita, Queen of Mars," showing at the UW Cinematheque last night. I knew it was playing, but didn't think I was in the mood for an old 1924 Russian black-and-white, silent science fiction film. Wow. Was I ever wrong. I would have paid good money for this wonderful show. That it was free to the public, like all Cinematheque showings, was just icing on the cake.
The film is best known to film historians for its amazing Russian Constructivist set and costume design, which is, by turns, hypnotic, loopy, and stunningly beautiful in its black-and-white geometry. These stills, which I cobbled together from the Internet, don't begin to do justice to the experience of seeing the film. You can find most of these pictures and additional stills with captions at this review from Images Journal (click on the images at the link to enlarge and show captions), which also has an excellent discussion of the movie and its significance.
The movie's influence is hard to overestimate. Its incredible avant-garde set designs--by Alexandra Exter and her protégé Isaak Rabinovich--would soon be echoed by Fritz Lang in Metropolis, and the set designs for planet Mongo in Flash Gordon strongly reflected Aelita's vision of Mars. The art design for Aelita is, simply put, out of this world. Spokes radiate from the Queen's hat. Doors open like camera apertures. Aelita's maid wears a spiral-shaped hat that seems to radiate from her forehead and sweep around her head. Gor, the guardian of the planet's energy, dresses in plastic tubes. Sentries look like robots, with face masks and huge ball joints at their shoulders. Staircases start one direction and then twist back in other directions--like Escher drawings. Columns arch like rib bones. The Elders march with their hands clasped within large medallion-shaped devices that they wear on their chests. Wires that function like harp strings encircle small pools and radiate to the high ceilings. Gor's telescope looks like a ship's mast with springs, prisms, and triangles instead of sails. This is a world like no other hitherto captured on film.Still, if the movie were only about formerly avant gard design, it wouldn't have been nearly as entertaining as it was. First, there was the time travel aspect of the beautifully restored print, which gave a pristine close-up view of the Soviet Union not long after the Revolution (most of the movie is set on Earth, not Mars). Also, the scifi elements aren't exactly what they seem, and the movie itself is a romantic melodrama that's all about love and jealousy, longing and loss, with a story that captures the social and political attitudes of the time like flies in amber. There's even a happy ending that helped make "Aelita" a huge smash success in the Soviet Union when the film, the most expensive made in the U.S.S.R up to that point, opened. It's available in DVD (there's a link with the Images Journal review), with English intertitles and a new piano score that "evokes themes by Sergei Prokofiev."
That, however, is not the print that we saw at the Cinematheque. To begin with, the intertitles were still in Russian. An English translation was read to us during the show, which by itself made for an interesting silent film experience. There also was no recorded score. Instead, we were treated to a humorous, lyrical and altogether charming improvised accompaniment by classically-trained jazz pianist David Drazin. I wrote about him earlier in the year, when he was also in town accompanying the rare screening of the Colleen Moore movie, "Her Wild Oat." His music provides a witty, musically sophisticated running commentary on the events taking place on screen -- and makes you sorry that silent films ever died out. With him at the keyboard, a silent film becomes a rich multimedia experience. You can see why he is in demand at silent film screenings all over the world, and we're lucky that he keeps coming to Madison for these Cinematheque performances.