Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Soviet Propaganda and Science Fiction

The art form of science fiction is a clever tool when depicting the unimaginable: alternate worlds, technology beyond our possibilities, other life forms and para-psychological theories. It liberates the imagination to see over to the other side: what could be, what might one day be possible. Just remember, back in the day cell phones and televisions were science fiction for Jules Verne.  Scifi can be useful in freeing our minds from the shackles of everyday rationality, but it is also a handy little weapon in the wars of propaganda.When done artfully, scifi can be armored to either question the prevalent political system or to reinforce it.

Coincidentally, the first science fiction movie on space travel was not done in the US, but in the newly formed Soviet Union by the filmmaker Yakov Protazanov. Aelita: The Queen of Mars (1924) was a silent film, based on a novel by Alexei Tolstoy. Protazanov´s work has undoubtedly influenced a number of later works in the same genre, most notably  Fritz Lang´s  famous Metropolis (1927).

The film was produced during the hype years of the "new era of communism", New Economic Policy. NEP stemmed from Lenin´s belief in introducing moderate "mixed-market" -measures into socialism. One of the signs of the new lax attitude was allowing foreign investment into the country, which produced a more commercially driven cinema production house, owned in part by a German organisation. Thus Mezhrabpom-Rus was able to give birth to Aelita, which arose from a curious marriage between the Soviet ideals on socialism and the good old Western capitalist business sense. The elaborate costumes and expensive set design were undoubtedly a result of this fruitful union.

Of course, Lenin understood the propaganda value of cinema. There is no question about it. At the time, the public did not understand the carefully orchestrated view on reality given by a motion picture. (One might ask if they sometimes still don´t). Aelita, however, did not receive a concordantly warm welcome from the comrades. It was deemed too Westernized, too bourgeois, and lacking short on socialist ideals. As time went by, the movie fell out of favor with the official Communist line completely. The movie attempted to portray a somewhat clear view on the Soviet society going through a transition- all re/presented in a strange space setting on an Martian planet.

The plot tells the story of a  group of people coming from  a post-war Soviet Union, traveling to Mars on a rocket ship. On Mars they help lead a rebellion against a ruling elite group- how fitting, one might ask. The plot offers the prerequisite love affair between the queen Aelita (pronounced almost like ´elite´) and the leader of the soviet group, Los. The affair is doomed, and Aelita is not to be trusted (like capitalism). After a series of tumultuous events, Los returns to Earth with his group of fellow-minded comrades. After impossible utopia, they find solace from the reality of Communism. Individualistic hedonism has been replaced with social duty and shared purpose.


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