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Once difficult to see, the hidden history of this lesser-known, more populist cinema is now being revealed.
DVD editions are available to import, obscure oddities are illicitly streamed on You Tube, and Mosfilm (Russia’s largest and oldest studio) has made much of its library available to view online, free of charge and mostly subtitled.
One of the better-known Soviet sci-fi films of the era, it follows an expedition to Venus by a team of cosmonauts – four men, a girl and a bulky robot clearly modelled on Robby the Robot from MGM’s Forbidden Planet (1956) – who are forced to descend to the planet’s surface when their two spaceships are damaged by meteors.
Once on land, they encounter malevolent lizard-men, predatory pterodactyls and man-eating plants, before finally escaping back to space.
One can’t fail to notice a profound influence on Kubrick’s much later 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in its realistic depictions of weightlessness, glowing planets and rotating model space stations.
Klushantsev’s film also captured the space-race zeitgeist; acting on instructions from film bureaucrats in Moscow, he added model footage depicting Sputnik 1, the Soviets’ first Earth-orbiting satellite.
All of which makes Klushantsev’s subsequent film – his only full-length feature Planet of Storms (Planeta Bura, 1962) – something of a disappointment.
In post-revolution Moscow, a daydreaming radio engineer receives a mysterious radio message, prompting him to fantasise about building a spaceship and travelling to a totalitarian Martian empire, where he leads a revolution of the enslaved proletariat.
One of the first films about space travel (albeit in its protagonist’s imagination), Aelita is memorable for its elaborate depiction of Mars in the constructivist style, with distinctive sets and costumes by designer Alexandra Exter.
While this has led to the formation of a very useful canon of Russian ‘greats’, it has also meant that our understanding of Russian and Soviet cinema remains limited, with the bulk of a mammoth national production largely obscured from view.
Beyond the established canon, the Soviet era threw up a thriving and diverse genre cinema taking in comedies, musicals, historical epics, sci-fi, war films and even ‘Red westerns’.