Aelita, Queen of Mars

In 1922 a Russian writer named Tolstoy published a compact but deeply philosophical novel about a trip to Mars titled Aelita. Not Leo Tolstoy—he’d been dead for 12 years—but Alexei N. Tolstoy, a distant younger relative. The story of a widowed and lonely young engineer who builds an apparatus that takes him to the red planet, where he falls in love with a blue-skinned, golden-haired princess and takes part in a revolution against a ruling council headed by her father, Aelita was a hit with the Russian reading public.

In 1924 director Yakov Protazanov made Tolstoy’s novel into the first Soviet science fiction movie, Aelita: Queen of Mars. A silent film spectacle, it added jealousy, larceny, murder, farce, and a living spouse to the engineer’s story, along with eye-popping, futuristic costumes and sets that made it an instant classic.

And in 2004, in Michigan City, Indiana, Dan Schaaf—mild-mannered public-library computer engineer by day, intrepid composer/playwright by night—began the painstaking process that has turned the film into Aelita, Queen of Mars, the Silent Cinema Musical, coming to Links Hall this weekend.

Working with a Russian DVD acquired from a friend living in Ukraine, Schaaf cut Aelita‘s running time from 111 to 75 minutes, doubled its frame rate, dropped the intertitles, added digital effects including occasional color, composed and recorded a surround-sound digital orchestra score with background music and songs, wrote a complete script with dialogue and a framing story, and cast five Indiana actors to perform the audio live while the film is screened.

It’ll run on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. On Thursday Schaaf will screen an even better-known Russian film classic, the artful 1929 documentary Man With the Movie Camera, by avant-garde director Dziga Vertov (aka David Kaufman), renowned for its innovative use of techniques like double exposure, split-screen, and tracking, its rapid-fire editing, and its bold attempt to liberate cinema from narrative. Schaaf has tinkered with the frame rate on this one too (bumping it up turns jerky movement “deliciously smooth,” he says), and given it his own recorded sound effects and score.

He took it on after scoring Fritz Lang’s 1927 film masterpiece Metropolis with Yambas, a bar-free music-notation software system of his own invention, which he says permits greater freedom when working with timbres and articulation. He’d watched the film on TV in the early 1990s, running over background music that sounded like a score for the Three Stooges. “I said, this is a disaster,” he recalls, “this great film and this stupid music, and I sat down and wrote a score for it.”

He didn’t know that other scores existed for Metropolis, including the grand orchestral original by Gottfried Huppertz. That, Schaaf says now, might have stopped him.

“But,” he adds, “ignorance is bliss. It allows you to do things you wouldn’t do if you knew better.”

Growing up in Michigan City, Schaaf was a dyslexic kid who struggled mightily trying to learn to read or play the piano. Text on a page would look garbled to his eye and, in music lessons administered by an ancient nun, he says, “I’d see a piano score in front of me, and the notes would disappear. I don’t know if they had a name for it then, but I was segregated in school, moved along on a separate track.” Science came easier, but he loved music (memorizing works in order to perform them), theater, and the Romantic poets. After two years in electrical engineering at Purdue, he switched to English. In the many years since—he’s 60 now—it’s the engineer’s training that’s provided his livelihood. Married to Bonnie, a lawyer, and the father of two daughters, he’s lived in northern Indiana nearly all his life.

Schaaf says the power music exerts in theater and film, the “enormous control it has over the perception of image,” is what fascinates him. “It may harmonize or contradict, and it can turn a scene around,” he says. “I really enjoy exploring that.” He’s written a couple of rock operas: MacBeth and Roxanne’s Kiss (a version of the Cyrano tale); incidental music for local theater; a couple musicals, including a never-completed adaptation of Harry Mark Petrakis’s novel A Dream of Kings; and compositions for dance companies along with scores for a few indie films. None of it took off. And though he still knows his way around a guitar and a piano, he says he doesn’t have the dexterity to perform live anymore. These days his instrument is a synthesizer.

Both Man With the Movie Camera and Aelita were in the public domain by the 1950s—and by that time both had been banned by the Soviet government, Schaaf says. The documentary is a 68-minute catalog of images, more or less tracking a “typical” day in a Russian city. Using software from Moscow State University (available free on the Internet), Schaaf raised both films from 24 to 48 frames per second. “This software calculates what the image should look like between the original frames and creates it,” he says. The result is so fluid, “it’s almost spooky.” He’s been working on his version of Aelita off and on for eight years now, and was still tweaking it last week.

Made during a window of relative artistic and entrepreneurial freedom before Stalin came into power, Aelita was an attempt to put together a Hollywood-style extravaganza in economically devastated postrevolutionary Russia. It succeeded wildly with its futuristic vision of Mars, the work of costume and set designer Alexandra Exter, a Belarusan artist who had trained in Paris, hung out with Picasso and Gertrude Stein, and exhibited in the Salon des Independants. Contrasting starkly with contemporary fashions in the Moscow scenes (think flapper-era chemise with heavy winter boots and babushka, exotic in its own way now), Exter’s costumes were drop-dead, sophisticated kitsch, including neo-Egyptian cone-crown and ankle-length skirts for the guys. The first time we see Aelita, now a dark-haired beauty, she’s wearing what looks like a three-boob bare-midriff top, and has a halo of antennae projecting from her noggin. Everybody, including the engineer, is deep into eyeshadow. Sexy, bizarre, and as sharply geometric as Exter’s cubist paintings, the Aelita look influenced just about everything that followed in the sci-fi genre, from Metropolis and Flash Gordon to, say, Brazil.

Schaaf created his dialogue from the relatively sparse intertitles (“Meet me tonight at the radiation tower” or “Show me some other worlds; no one will find out”), and what the characters seemed to be saying. “You can look for English words that’ll sort of fit their mouths,” he says. He attempted to “rationalize” a story line that he admits confounded him the first time he saw it, by streamlining a digressive plot. Aelita “isn’t completely logical; if you really think about it, it doesn’t work,” he says. “But there’s so much good stuff in it, it’s worth the ride.”

Schaaf says his cuts are entirely from the earthbound parts of the film; all of the fascinating scenes on Mars, where workers are put in the deep-freeze when they’re not needed on the production line, are intact, including a revolution subverted by tyranny. That probable reference to what was happening in Soviet Russia may have been the plot point that got it banned, Schaaf says. Or maybe, once Stalin and social realism took hold, “it was just too silly.”