Jakov Protazanov was the most prestigious director of pre-revolutionary Russian cinema. The more than eighty films that he directed during this period included historical epics, mundane melodramas, musical comedies and literary adaptations.
He co-directed with Vladimir Gardin one several films, notably the three-hour Kljuchi Schastja/ The Keys to Happiness (1913, lost), scripted by Anastasiya Verbitskaya, photographed by Aleksandr Levitsky and starring Olga Preobrazhenskaya.
Gardin, Protazanov and Pyotr Chardynin directed the serial Peterburgskiye Trushchobi/ Petersburg Slums (1915).
He obtained the best results in the literary genre, often directing
the silent star Ivan Mozzukhin, as in
Pikovaya Dama/ The Queen of Spade (1916), adapted from Pushkin,
e in Otec Sergij/ Father Sergius (1918), adapted from Lev Tolstoy;
skilled at lingering on the grand aristocratic balls of the 19th century as at rendering with realism and penetration the psychology of the most tormented characters.
The biggest hit of early Soviet cinema was the sci-fi comedy Aelita (1924), adapted from Aleksey Tolstoy's novel by Fyodor Otsep, which basically transported the communist revolution to Mars, starring Yuliya Solntseva
(later Alexander Dovzhenko's wife)
as the queen of Mars, Igor Ilyinsky
(already a famous actor in Vsevolod Meyerhold's theatrical productions)
as the amateur detective, and Nikolai Tseretelli as an engineer, but more notable for the constructivist costumes and sets, designed, respectively, by Viktor Simov and Aleksandra Ekster.
It was a hit all over the world.
In 1921 radio stations on Earth receive a strange signal that says "Anta Odeli Uta". Most people ignore it but chief engineer Loss in Moscow is intrigued.
His wife Natasha is a honest and hard-working official.
The scientists fail to decode the mysterious message and Loss dreams that it could be coming from Mars.
Loss daydreams of life on Mars, dreams of Aelita, the queen of Mars,
of her favorite maid Ihoshka,
of Tuskub, the ruler of Mars, and of
Gor, builder of a interplanetary telescope.
Gor invites Tuskub to watch life on Earth, and Tuskub asks him to keep it
secret but Aelita's maid is eavesdropping.
Aelita curious begs Gor
Gor activates the telescope and Aelita sees scenes of traffic in a big city,
of caravans in the desert, of warships in a port, and of two lovers on a bridge... Loss and Natasha.
She begs Gor to kiss her on the lips the way the earthly do.
She then sees an earthly housewife busy with laundry and cooking.
All of this happens in Loss' daydreams.
In reality, Loss is working on a spaceship to reach Mars.
Gussev, a former soldier dispatched to help in the city during the economic emergency, starts working at a hospital and everybody likes him, especially the nurse Masha.
Trains are overcrowded with passengers traveling even on the roof of the train.
Two such passengers are Viktor Erlikh and his wife Elena.
People are starving and
Natasha is in charge of distribution of rationed food.
Erlikh tries to bribe her to obtain a room but Masha kicks him out.
Elena takes her husband to the place of an old lover,
who happens to be
one of the scientists who works for Loss. She tells the scientist that Erlikh
is her brother and the scientist let them stay.
When Loss gets home, he finds a note that Erlikh wrote to his wife when he was
trying to bribe her and Loss thinks that it is a love message.
At a party of nostalgic people,
Erlikh tells the story of how he used to be an aristocrat before the revolution,
a woman is nostalgic that people's manners used to be more refined before the revolution and
her husband tells the story that he used to be a well respected as a police officer.
Erlikh finds a way to have an official order Loss and Natasha to rent him a room.
Erlikh moves in alone and entertains Natasha.
Loss becomes even more suspicious.
Meanwhile, Erlikh's wife seduces the scientist Spiridonov.
Erlikh alters an official document and steals a scarce item: sugar.
He takes two heavy bags to his wife and she hides them.
Erlikh surprises Natasha with a box of chocolate.
Loss becomes even more suspicious of them.
The disappearance of the sugar is discovered and reported to the police.
The chief of police dispatches two agents to investigate. A man called
Kravtsov who dreams of becoming a detective begs him to be assigned the case.
The agents search Erlikh's room in vain: they don't find any sugar.
On the other hand, Loss confronts Natasha about another note left by Erlikh
and they have a fight.
Kravtsov charges himself with continuing the investigation on Erlikh.
He follows him to a meeting with other shady figures who are planning a scam.
Loss continues to work on his spaceship while daydreaming of life on Mars.
And so on Mars the maid tells Aelita that she can browse in the telescope
while the elders are in a meeting.
However Tuskub sees her walking towards the telescope and locks the gate.
The elders control Mars, and even Aelita has to obey them. The workers,
who wears box-like hats and move like robots, are kept like slaves in underground cities.
Gor, who knows that she is illegally using the telescope, is also jealous that she neglects him for the man on Earth, Loss.
Loss entrusts Spiridonov with the drawings of the spaceship.
One evening when Loss is late because he's still focused on the mysterious message, Erlikh flirts with Natasha and convinces her
to go dancing with him. Loss arrives just when they are leaving on a sleigh.
It's a private party of rich counter-revolutionaries.
Natasha is shocked to see them
wearing nice shoes when most people only have broken shoes.
Spiridonov, invited by Erlikh's wife to the party, sees Natasha and tells her that her husband is about to leave for a trip.
She rushes home and finds a farewell note by Loss who tells her of a
long business trip: he has been dispatched far away to work on a new power plant.
Three months go by.
As the economic crisis relents, Natasha is mostly idle and lonely at work,
having received only three postcards from Loss. Her job is canceled and
she finds a new job at an orphanage.
Gussev is dismissed from the army and sent home.
Masha cries but Gussev surprises her
with a marriage proposal.
Loss' work at the power plant is also coming to an end. He receives a note from
Spiridonov: his fellow scientist and friend has decided to leave Russia
and has hidden the spaceship drawings in a fireplace.
Loss takes the train back home. He buys flowers for Natasha but, as soon as he enters his house, he overhears Erlikh flirting with her. Loss loses his mind
and shoots her.
He then buys a wig, glasses and a beard to look like Spiridonov and hide from
the police. He can therefore attend Natasha's wake and he cries on her coffin.
However, at the same time, Kravtsov the amateur detective is still investigating
the theft of sugar.
Having found a suspicious picture of Spiridnov, Kravtsov follows Loss.
Loss manages to elude Kravtsov but this only increases Kravtsov's suspicion.
Kravtsov now also suspects him of the murder of Natasha, having found a glove
on the murder scene.
Kravtsov tracks him down using a dog and tries to arrest him but Loss realizes
that Kravtsov is not a real cop.
Spiridonov/Loss starts working on his spaceship.
Gussev is getting bored at home and, upon hearing of the mission to Mars,
approaches Spiridonov/Loss asking to help out.
Gussev gets excited about flying to Mars with the scientist, although this
upsets Masha. In fact, Masha tries to lock Gussev into the house while he is
asleep, but he escapes in time.
A military parade is organize to celebrate the departure of the spaceship.
Kratsov, still following his suspect Spiridnov, sneaks into the spaceship,
not realizing that he is inside a spaceship, and finds a glove that matches
the one found at the murder scene.
The spaceship takes off. Kratsov reveals himself and tries again to arrest
Spiridonov/ Loss, but
Spiridonov removes his mask, reveals himself to be Loss, and shows
Kratsov that they are already very far from the Earth.
Informed by Gor that a missile from Earth is headed for Mars,
Tuskub orders them killed.
Aelita, intrigued by the aliens, begs in vain to let them live.
Aelita arms her maid with a knife and the maid stabs the chief astronomer so that he cannot report to Gor the location of the landing.
Aelita then instructs the maid to meet the earthly visitors and bring them to her.
Aelita witnesses the crash landing in the telescope and sees the three earthly
coming out of the spaceship.
The maid escorts them to the palace.
(Apparently the Martians speak Russian!)
Kratsov sneaks away and asks Martian cops to arrest Loss. He is taken
to Tuksub and all the elders.
Aelita and Loss fall in love right away. She literally faints in his arms.
Gussev and the maid become close friends too.
the elders listen to Kratsov's accusations against Loss but then sentence
Kratsov to death.
Gor finds the murdered astronomer and a necklace that points at the maid as
the perpetrator. She is arrested and taken underground to the slaves.
Gussev follows the soldiers and tries to free her.
Meanwhile, Aelita is plotting to reign over Mars with Loss, but now Aelita
has morphed into Natasha. Tuksub finds them, arrests Loss and locks both of
them with the slaves.
Gussev gives a rousing speech to the slaves inciting them to a revolution like the one for which
he fought in 1917 and to establish the Martian Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. We see a worker forging a sickle with a hammer.
Aelita pledges to lead the revolution although Gussev is alarmed that a queen would lead slaves.
The slaves attack, led by Aelita, and overthrow Tuskub after the army switches sides.
But Aelita has other plans: she orders the army to shoot the rebels and to push them back into the underground cave.
Loss is horrified by her betrayal of the people: she used them to become sole dictator of Mars.
The delirious Aelita turns into Natasha again and Loss again kills her.
But suddenly we are back on Earth, at the train station, where a
woman is posting advertisements for a tire company named
"Anta Odeli Uta".
Loss has daydreamed the whole Martian story.
Masha and Gussev greet Loss: they are leaving for the Far East.
Loss is delirious: he tells them that he just killed Natasha.
Masha and Gussev follow him to his house, worried about what may have happened,
but they see that Natasha is alive (Loss missed) and that Loss and Natasha
Masha and Gussev can leave on their train.
Erlikh is arrested for the murder of Spiridonov.
Loss burns the drawings of his spaceship and promises to Natasha that he will stop daydreaming.
The film is only superficially a sci-fi movie. The second half is a
a crime thriller in disguise with the happy "communist" ending.
The film also provides a realistic view of life after the revolution, when
food was rationed and conflicts still brewed between the old ruling class
and the proletariat.
Zakroyshchik iz Torzhka/ The Tailor from Torzhok (1925),
written by Valentin Turkin,
photographed by Pyotr Yermolov and
starring again Igor Ilyinsky, is a simple comedy of ordinary life.
Until the end of his life he continued to make lightweight films, both
launching the satirical comedy of the NEP period with
Prozess o Treh Millionach/ The Three Million Trial (1926), based on Umberto Notari's play "I Tre Ladri" (1907), and indulging in the dramatic genere
war movie Sorok Pervij/ The Forty-first (1927), based on Boris Lavrenyov's novel.
He died in 1945.