Mad Science and Martian Maidens

Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy was Russia’s less internationally known Tolstoy. While the one was writing thousand-page tomes about sad people losing things (pretty sure that’s the plot of most Leo Tolstoy books) that would be forced upon generation after generation, the other Tolstoy was writing slick science fiction adventures like Aelita (1923, adapted into a movie a year later), Engineer Garin (1924), and Count Cagliostro, which American high school students did not get to read, since there was no time left after plodding through Anna Karenina — in which absolutely no one travels to Mars, builds a death ray, or practices alchemy. To be fair to Leo Tolstoy though, it’s been twenty-six years since I read Anna Karenina, and all I really remember is a chapter where two rivals for the love of the title character retire to a nearby barn to try and outdo one another in feats of gymnastic prowess, and I may even be getting that wrong. In fact, I think much of what I remember of Anna Karenina is actually Great Expectations. I am, however, quite certain there was no death ray.

Aleksey Tolstoy was born in 1849, the son of rakish Count Nikolay Alexandrovich Tolstoy, who was dismissed from his cavalry regiment for being too much of a swingin’ hellraiser. The count later went on to be exiled from no fewer than three Russian cities. He eventually married but did not settle down, continuing to cut a wild, debauched path through polite Czarist society and, somewhere along the way, fathering a number of children. His wife, Alexandra Leontievna Turgeneva, eventually tired of her caddish husband’s wanton ways and, while pregnant with Aleksey, fled into the arms of a lover of her own, Alexei Appollonovich Bostrom. A scandal ensued, Nikolay emptied a pistol at Alexei Bostrom, the church forbade poor Alexandra from ever marrying again, and to keep her baby Aleksey, she had to claim that he was the son of her lover. As a result, young Aleksey grew up in rather an impoverished, dishonored, and radical family — staunchly atheist and anti-Czarist.

Painter Pyotr Konchalovsky's portrait of Tolstoy, who I guess enjoyed a meal or two
Painter Pyotr Konchalovsky’s portrait of Tolstoy, who I guess enjoyed a meal or two.

As a lad, Tolstoy became a fan of writers of fantastic adventure fiction; men like James Fenimore Cooper, Jules Verne, and Victor Hugo. When his father died, Aleksey received an unexpectedly generous inheritance which enabled him to move to St. Petersburg and begin pursuing writing in the style of his literary heroes. He also launched a love life that, while not the rival of the carousing father he never knew, was certainly not without its own salacious character and eventual production of offspring. When the Russian Revolution rolled around, Tolstoy allied himself with the White Russians — the side which eventually proved unsuccessful. Driven from his native land by the Revolution, he fled to Paris and then later to Berlin. He grew weary life in exile, feeling that he and the son he’d been dragging around with him were losing their Russian identity. He reconciled himself with Lenin’s revolution and, in 1923, returned to the newly formed Soviet Union, where he found he was highly regarded, mostly for the tracts he wrote about how crappy life as a wandering exile had been.

Aelita, Queen of Mars

Shortly after this reunion with his homeland, Tolstoy wrote Aelita, a sort of Soviet First Men in the Moon and precursor to Fritz Lang’s epic science fiction films Woman in the Moon and Metropolis — the latter containing a number of similar plot points. In Aelita, a disillusioned engineer named Mstislav Los and a retired soldier, Alexei Gusev, build a rocketship and travel to Mars. There, the two brave Soviet adventurers encounter a technologically advanced society, but one in which the ruling class lives in opulent luxury while the working class are oppressed, forced below ground and practically chained to the machines they operate to provide for the upper class. Among the leaders are Toscoob, king of engineers, and his daughter, the princess Aelita, who are facing a planetary crisis caused by environmental catastrophe. Mstislav Los falls in love with Aelita, but his rowdy pal Alexei allies himself with the oppressed workers, eventually leading them in an uprising against the masters of Mars. The revolution fails, however, and the two earthlings are forced to hop back in their rocketship and return to the Soviet Union, leaving the fate of tumultuous Mars unknown to the reader.

In 1924, a year after the publication of Tolstoy’s novel, Aelita was adapted into a film. Aelita: Queen of Mars is one of the landmark films in the history of science fiction in general and Soviet cinema in particular — but being a landmark doesn’t necessarily make it a great film. Or even a very good film. In an effort to pay more lip service to the newborn Soviet Union, the core of Tolstoy’s novel is wrapped in an interminable story that dwells endlessly on the improper filling out of forms at the local beet distribution center; and even more endlessly on the romantic ups and downs of engineer Los (Nikolai Tsereteli), who in the film is just a horrible, horrible human being even though we’re supposed to think he’s a hero. At one point, he guns down his own wife, then dismisses the murder by telling the dying woman, “Sorry, but I was jealous.” I’m pretty sure that wasn’t wholly acceptable as heroic behavior even in the 1920s.

In the scant minutes of the film that aren’t embroiled in the scandal of who swiped an extra beet or what a crappy husband Los is, we spend some time amongst the primary reason anyone watches this movie: the insane Constructivist sets and costumes comprising the society of Mars. On Mars, restless princess Aelita (Yuliya Solntseva) sneaks a peek through a forbidden telescope in the Tower of Radiant Energy, which she focuses on Earth. There, she witnesses Los being a moody scumbag and, naturally, falls in love with him. Eventually, Los’ murdering ways result in him sneaking aboard a rocketship along with the detective pursuing him, Kravtsov (Igor Ilyinsky), and the adventurous soldier Gusev (Nikolai Batalov), who has recently married a local nurse then promptly decided he should abandon her and explore the stars with his accordion and a wife-murdering fugitive. Inevitably, the trio end up on Mars where, as in Tolstoy’s book, they discover the planet’s success is fueled by oppressed workers. Gusev becomes a revolutionary leader, Los the secret fling of Aelita, and detective Kravtsov…well, that poor chump is still obliviously committed to proving Los is a killer.

Decades worth of screencaps have misled viewers into thinking they are in for some sort of Flash Gordon sci-fi adventure — and looking at the images I chose to illustrate this article, I guess I am contributing to this illusion. This turns out not to be the case. Why does it seem so much fiction set in the Soviet Union revolves around people waiting in line for a beet? I understand why critics of the USSR would focus on that, but why would the Soviets themselves think, “Yes, yes, is glorious to wait in line for beet!” Anyway, as endless and dull as the drama back on Earth is, the visit to Mars more than justify the investment of time it takes to watch this movie.

Constructivism, the style that influenced the costumes and sets that ensured Aelita would not be forgotten, was a movement in the USSR during the early 1920s, related to the Italian Futurist movement (which I wrote about for Alcohol Professor, as the Futurists were kind enough to develop a manifesto around cocktails, among other things). As you might guess, Constructivism celebrated function driving form (but not necessarily the triumph of one at the expense of the other): sleek lines, public interaction, and modern materials. As seems to be the case with almost all names of artistic movements, the phrase was coined as an insult by Russian painter Kazimir Malevich and directed at the work of sculptor and photographer Alexander Rodchenko, not to be confused with Alexander Rozhenko.

The difference is subtle but important
The difference is subtle but important.

By 1920, sculptor Naum Gabo had appropriated the term and applied it in a positive light when he did what most artists of the time loved to do more than anything: publishing a manifesto. For the young revolutionary state, there could be no better art form than one that celebrated the discarding of ornate and overwrought indulgences, like those that has typified art and life during the Czarist era, and urged people to build a new, productive society out of new material and new ideas. It probably didn’t hurt that it got people jazzed for an awesome, jet-set looking future of hope and success that would distract them from all the poverty, starvation, creeping oppression, and waiting in line for beets that typified the reality of the idealistic yet problematic young union.

Constructivist graphic design, painting, sculpture, and architecture was quick to emerge, but perhaps most Constructivist of them all — because it was the newest, and the least explored, with the least amount of pre-Revolution baggage, was cinema. In 1919, film editor Dziga Vertov and his wife, fellow film editor Yelizaveta Svilova (most famous for her work on 1929’s Man with a Movie Camera), founded a collective they called The Kinoks (“Cinema Eyes”), along with cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman (who also happened to be Vertov’s little brother). Together, they declared the death of all cinema that had come before their movement, for that had been film influenced by foreign, non-Soviet ideas. For them, staged cinema with sets and stars was false and disappointing. They favored location shoots, newsreel style documentary film with no professional actors and no pre-plotted story. Vertov famously proclaimed that the human eye was inferior to the “kino eye,” and that only through the movie camera could reality be accurately documented and perceived. Needless to say, they published a lot of manifestos.

While Man with a Movie Camera and Kino Eye (1924) are the most acclaimed examples of Constructivist cinema, the most screencapped is probably Aelita, purely because of the designs by Aleksandra Ekster, who before the Revolution used to run with Picasso and Gertrude Stein and, like Tolstoy, spent much of her creative period in Paris. Although Aelita, with its script, actors, and big sets hardly seems the stuff of Kinok dreams, it was certainly in keeping with the spirit of Constructivism. Ekster’s costumes for the Martians are made largely of modern materials like plastic, metal, and synthetic fabrics. Some of them seem legitimately dangerous, possibly even deadly. That no one was impaled on Aelita’s ornate headdress is one of the great miracles of Soviet film making.

Perhaps the most famous of Ekster’s contributions are the billowing trousers worn by Aelita’s maid and partner in crime, Ihoshka (Aleksandra Peregonets). There’s nothing particularly outrageous about the pants themselves, which are little more than Arabian influenced pantaloons; it’s the fact that they are reinforced by big, hinged metal girders that makes them memorable. They must be a nightmare to put on and take off, and lord only knows how Ihoshka manages going to the bathroom in the things. And speaking of Ihoshka, I would not want to fail to mention that, although this movie is called Aelita, and the main character is Los, and the main plot is about those beet distribution forms — Ihoshka owns this movie. While everyone else is being glum and boring, gorgeous and charismatic Aleksandra Peregonets plays everything with boundless energy, creeping about spider-like in her steel girder pantaloons with an acting style that is equal parts early silent film era over-acting and very precise, intentionally exaggerated Kabuki-like theatrics. If this movie had only been about her prancing around and being wonderful, we would have all been a lot better off.

In fact, the dazzling display of Aleksandra Ekster’s designs not withstanding, we would have been better off with a movie about the life of Aleksandra Peregonets — though to be fair to the linear way in which we experience time, it would have been hard to make a movie oabout her life during the 1940s in the 1920s. During the Second World War she and her husband, stage designer Nikolay Baryshev, formed an anti-Nazi resistance group responsible not just for staging subversive plays, but also for gathering and disseminating intelligence regarding Axis locations and troop movements in The Crimea. Their clandestine theater troupe also hid people away and protected them from deportation to concentration camps. Tragically, in 1944 the Gestapo captured Aleksandra Peregonets and her husband. She was imprisoned and then executed on April 10, 1944.

Although a landmark in terms of Soviet and science fiction cinema — and a highly influential film (everything from the Flash Gordon serials to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis owes a debt of gratitude to Aelita), the fact remains that this is still a film where the bulk of the run time is taken up with dreary beet distribution form drama and a terrible jealous lover subplot where hero is just a loathsome person. As a student of cinema, or of design, or science fiction — yes, you should probably watch Aelita and treasure its utterly mad set and costume design. Marvel at just how much fun Ihoshka is and how you wish you could just spend the entire movie with her. Savor these moments, as if they were the ripe, tender flesh of a beet for which you waited in line seven hours. Because the rest of this movie is definitely the cinematic equivalent of waiting in that beet line.

Engineer Garin

Aleksey Tolstoy returned to science fiction in 1926, with the story Engineer Garin, which apparently Vladimir Nabokov thought was superb even though he failed himself to be influenced enough by it to include any death rays in his own novel, Lolita. Oh, if only Lolita had met Ihoshka, and the two of them had used a death ray on Los and Humbert Humbert, freeing themselves up to hop in a flying saucer and zip around the galaxy having awesome space lady adventures and buying steel girders for their pantaloons and short-shorts. Ah, anyway, back to Engineer Garin. It’s very much a pulp adventure, in which the titular Engineer Garin invents a death ray then uses it to try to take over the world — which, really, is a bit like one man inventing a pistol then trying to use it to take over the world.

Death rays were, as you know, very much the rage in the 1920s, and most stylish super-villains and megalomaniacal mad scientists had to create one if they wanted to make the scene at the next Mad Scientists Ball. So popular, in fact, were death rays during the great death ray boom of the 1920s and 1930s, that no fewer than five men claimed to have invented one. Sadly, none of them had the panache to make the announcement via an oval-shaped view screen which, for some reason, can connect to an identical one at the White House. The first man to make public statements regarding his ability to bring humanity to his knees was a Detroit inventor named Edwin R. Scott, who in 1923 claimed to have invented a death ray that could “destroy human life and bring down planes at a distance.” Although you’d think that once you’ve destroyed human life, the bringing down of a plane from a ways off is rather an inessential affair and somewhat anti-climatic.

On the other hand, I suppose anti-climax is the theme when it comes to death rays, because despite the promises of Scott and myriad other inventors, no one could ever actually produce a working prototype or even a sound demonstration on paper. The most famous man to get in on the death ray business was Nikolai Tesla, an inventor of genuine brilliance and profound historical importance. He, however, insisted that death rays were preposterous for a number of scientific reasons. His invention was a death particle beam. Even he, however, failed to produce any demonstrable evidence of the efficacy of his death beam.


Such devices also enjoyed tremendous popularity in the pulp magazines of the era. The idea even persisted well into the 1960s and 1970s, when spy movies were still in love with the idea of a case revolving around a kidnapped scientist who had invented a death ray — even if, by the sixties, the idea of a death ray as an ultimate weapon seemed a little… old-fashioned and impractical in a world with surface-to-air missiles and nuclear arsenals. I would suspect that any cackling madman who appeared on the oval viewscreen clutching at the sky and demanding a million dollar ransom lest he employ his terrible death ray would be regarded as rather a moderate threat, at worst.

Even today, the dream of a hopelessly complex, profoundly unwieldy way to harness the destructive power of science remains alive. In 2013, two men from Albany, New York were arrested and charged with “attempting to build a death ray.” Good thing we left that law on the books. Admittedly, the entire Albany death ray plot seems to have been concocted by the FBI, who then shopped the daft idea around until they found someone stupid or mentally ill enough to agree to go in on it with them. At that time the FBI promptly arrested the guys for tacitly agreeing to the FBI’s own plan. I can only assume that the division of the FBI devoted to making up terrorists plots then trying to trick dolts into saying they’ll join up uses a 1928 issue of Weird Science Tales for most of their ideas.

Although film makers had been quick to adapt Aelita into a movie, they moved less quickly with Engineer Garin. According to the superb review of Engineer Garin on Die Danger Die Die Kill (without whom I never would have even heard of the movie), filmmakers tried to get permission to adapt the story, but the powers that be in the Soviet Union did not want to make a movie about a Soviet scientist who betrays the people. It wasn’t until 1965, when the world was high on James Bond movies, that Tolstoy’s tale of an engineer lugging around his cumbersome death ray was adapted into a movie. Gintsburg hit on the idea of pitching the story as a children’s film, and as such, was under substantially less scrutiny for the bulk of production, though the state did step in toward the end, eliminating some of the more childish aspects to render the film more prestigious — a preoccupation that seemed to result in them forgetting earlier fears about hinting that any Soviet citizen could be a crumb.

It probably also helped that Stalin was dead, and that the Soviet Union was thus prone to occasional bouts of being less oppressive than it had been. Not that there isn’t a sound Soviet message behind all the derring-do and dangling from airships. The representatives of the capitalist West are appropriately evil and self-serving, willing to obliterate the world if it means they can make a few extra bucks. And they betray anyone and everyone. Garin, by comparison, seems rather a lesser villain, and perhaps his pointy Lenin beard and attempt to take over the world is a message Gintsberg slipped in under the radar of Soviet censors. Because the idealistic Garin who wants to create a utopia of his own design that ultimately proves hopelessly flawed sounds just a little bit like another guy with a Lenin beard who tried the same thing.

The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin, directed by first timer Aleksandr Gintsburg, may be based on Tolstoy’s story from 1926, but it’s influences and reason for existing were much more contemporary. Although the international popularity of James Bond movies is often cited (well as often as anyone is in a position to cite things about The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin) as the template for this film, it has a lot more in common with adventure serials of the 1930s and 1940s, the fantastical Edgar Wallace mystery films that had been revived in Germany in the late 1950s, and the similar revival of one of the seminal figures in outlandish European thriller-adventures, Dr. Mabuse. All of which makes Engineer Garin part of a curious and highly enjoyable enclave of films from the 1960s that were equal parts swingin’ sixties thrillers and silent era adventures.

Edgar Wallace was a British mystery writer whose books were wildly popular in Weimar Germany, and remained so until they were banned by the Nazis. His trademark was gloriously convoluted tales involving masked master criminals. A series of films based on his novels were made in England during the 1930s and 1940s. While competent, they don’t quite capture the potential for phantasmagoric weirdness contained within the tales. It was in 1957 that Edgar Wallace films — krimi as they became known — came into their own. Once again back in Germany, film studio Rialto decided to dust off the old Wallace stories and have themselves a revival. These new krimi exploted everything that had transpired in comics, pulps, and fantastic film making since the 1920s. They were utterly insane at their calmest, populated by bizarre villains like The Frog — a thief who dresses up in ping pong eyes and an awkward cloak and enjoys shoving a blowtorch in the face of those who oppose him. Once the films could afford to be made in color, they really became delirious, lurid, candy-colored affairs, all set to a jazzy score by composer Peter Thomas.

Inspired no doubt by the success of these films, another German production company — albeit one with slightly less cash — decided to try their hand at their own pulp style master criminal series. For this, they turned to the insidious master of disguise, Dr. Mabuse — a character introduced by author Norbert Jacques in his 1921 thriller Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler but better known as the subject of director Fritz Lang’s epic intrigue film, Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler, released the following year. Lang made a sequel, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, in 1933, and when it came time for the studio CCC Filmkunst to come up with an Edgar Wallace-like series, they once again turned to Mabuse and Fritz Lang, who in 1960 returned to direct The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. It was a prestigious start to the potential series, but that prestige was quickly ditched in order to turn a fast profit.

In a ploy to mimic the krimi films, producer Artur Brauner hired director Harald Reini, who had made some of the wonderful early entries in Rialto’s Edgar Wallace series, to churn out a series of cheap, quick Dr. Mabuse films. The new series started with 1961’s The Return of Dr. Mabuse. In just a couple of years, Brauner produced five Mabuse films with a variety of directors, including a remake of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and, most pertinent to Engineer Garin, concluded the series (not that there was much continuity between them) with 1963’s The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse. It is from this gloriously confusing, beautiful, and occasionally incompetent stew of krimi and Dr. Mabuse films that the Soviet effort The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin emerges.

Yevgeniy Yevstigneyev stars as the titular engineer (Tolstoy must have had a grudge against engineers, as both Aelita and Garin feature nefarious takes on the profession), a man of stunning brilliance and stunted morality. When he absconds with a death ray invented by another scientist, an international manhunt puts dogged Soviet inspector Shelga (Vsevolod Safonov) on the trail of the outlaw engineer. Garin, it turns out, intends to sell the death ray to a Western industrialist, and for the first half of the movie, this plot plays out like a briskly paced and at times confusing (though entertaining) film noir with lots of shadows, double-crosses, impostors in fake Lenin beards, and more characters with more shifting allegiances than can be easily kept track of. At times, one simply has to grab hold and enjoy the ride.

For the second half of the film Garin, disillusioned with his experiences trying to sell a death ray to a scheming capitalist, escapes with his femme fatale lover Zoya (blonde bombshell Natalya Klimova) to a private island, where he and his suddenly acquired SPECTRE-esque minions convert the death ray into a powerful mining apparatus. He intends to use it to obtain a vast quantity of gold located deep within the crust of the earth; and in true super villain form, he then plans to flood the global economy with the gold, destabilizing all the nations so that he might set himself up as ruler of the world. Luckily, Shelga is still out on the case, undazzled by all that glitters and more than willing to sacrifice the life of a small boy in the service of disarming Garin’s death ray.

While the tense, noirish first half of the film can be a trifle difficult to get through purely because it gets so convoluted (though that convoluted nature is in keeping with the spirit of the krimi movies), if one sticks with it and puzzles things out, the second half of the film is happy to reward you with a seemingly endless parade of chases, narrow escapes, shoot-outs, naval sieges, airships, and everything else a healthy mind could hope for from a pulp adventure. Whether playing his role in the noir portion of the film or the globe-trotting, futuristic adventure portion, Yevgeniy Yevstigneyev is a master of knowing exactly how to deliver the material. He is brash, boisterous, and manages to push it to the limit without every quite going over-the-top. While the film expects us to root for Inspector Shelga and against the capitalists and mad scientists, it’s impossible not to get caught up in Yevstigneyev’s passionate, charismatic portrayal of the outlaw engineer. I mean, how much worse could he do at ruling the world than the people who were already doing it?

The only thing that can truly keep pace with Yevstigneyev’s performance is the direction by Aleksandr Gintsburg, better known at the time as a cinematographer and who obviously relishes the chance to indulge every stylistic whim afforded him by the Frankenstein’s monster of a genre that Engineer Garin inhabits. Although filmed in 1965, Gintsburg retains the original story’s setting 1925, which keeps it as an interesting companion piece to Aelita both in terms of the source material and the era in which it takes place. Of course, the Soviet Union of Engineer Garin‘s 1925 has way fewer blizzards and beet lines and way more airships and well equipped physical culture facilities than Aelita‘s. Gintsburg also takes it as an opportunity to employ some of the more imaginative though out-of-fashion cinematic flourishes of both the silent and noir eras. It also allows the death ray to be at least somewhat feasible as a doomsday device, since it comes at a time before missiles, drones, and nukes.

Against the stylish direction and the might of Yevstigneyev, the rest of the cast doesn’t really stand a chance. They are all fine, and Natalya Klimova makes an excellent lover and accomplice for Garin, although I can’t help but imagine what Garin could have accomplished if he’d had Ihoshka by his side. Gintsburg and Yevstigneyev cast long shadows from which the others never fully emerge, particularly the film’s hero (which is common for this type of film, even today). If it can be hard to keep Garin’s plot straight because so many people disguise themselves as false Garins while Garin disguises himself as someone else, Shelga is difficult to keep track of simply because — well, he’s a do-gooding, square-jawed inspector trying to outshine a posturing madman with a death ray, a sexy sidekick, and a Zeppelin. That just ain’t gonna happen, no matter how much you love Communism.

The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin‘s primary mission is to thrill audiences, and that it does with a dashing handiness, eager to propel you without pause into the next glamorous nightclub scene, the next chase down a shadowy alley, or the next guy with a pointy beard firing off death rays and tearing around in an airship. Where as Aelita‘s brief forays into Constructionist costume design promise a film that is never really delivered, Engineer Garin makes good on all you expect of such a film and then throws in a Zeppelin for good measure. To be fair, though, when it comes to naming your tech, Aelita has it all over Garin. You can’t really outdo naming your telescope the Tower of Radiant Energy. “Behold my hyperboloid drilling apparatus,” by comparison, sounds like an affliction or really awkward foreplay.