The Yale Film Colloquium on Wednesday night presented a 35-mm screening of “Aélita,” a 1924 Soviet silent film directed by Yakov Protazanov, with special musical accompaniment by composer-pianist Donald Sosin, his wife Joanna Seaton and Alicia Svigals, at the Whitney Humanities Center Auditorium. The event was sponsored by graduate students and faculty in the Film Studies Department.
The colloquium held the screening as part of its Spaced Out, the Outer Space and Altered States film series. Before the start of the film, Amanda Lerner, a graduate student selected by the Film Colloquium because of her research on Russian science fiction, presented the composers, musicians and the film itself to those in attendance. “Aélita,” also known as “Aélita: Queen of Mars,” follows a small group of people in post-war Soviet Union, including an engineer who dreams he has traveled to Mars and met and fallen in love with its Queen, Aélita.
“It’s got a lot of really interesting themes going on,” Lerner said. “It’s one of the really early examples of an alternate reality being presented as a dream or a daydream, which is really interesting in the context of Russian science fiction.”
Lerner’s research focuses on Soviet and post-Soviet time travel narratives in science fiction. She uses the narratives in her work to explore the creation and ultimate loss of a Soviet identity.
She highlighted the political undertones of “Aélita” and ended her introduction by urging the audience to decide for itself whether the film falls under the genre of science fiction.
“This is a really classic trope in Soviet science fiction — spreading the Soviet ideology to outer space,” Lerner said. “And this film is a really funny, good example of that.”
Isaac Robinson ’21, who found out about the event through Facebook, attended because of his interest in Soviet artform and used it as a way to take a break from his work. He visited the previous screenings in the series and had anticipated the showing.
“I certainly can see the point [Lerner’s] making, that most of the sci-fi elements ultimately turn out to be the product of a dream,” Robinson said. “But, having said that, I didn’t really feel we could dismiss the initial Mars scenes and the origin of the mysterious signal in the same way, which meant — at least in my mind — that there were sci-fi elements that put it into that genre.”
Lerner also noted the effort by the film’s costume designer, Aleksandra Ekster, to capture the shape, form and texture of Martian dress, rather than the array of colors, in order to overcome the limitations of black and white film.
Robinson noted that such endeavours are not replicated in modern-day color movies.
“That kind of aesthetic desire really fueled the film and made it beautiful,” Robinson said. “As if limitations in technology mean they have to try harder to make something they consider beautiful.”
Sosin, who has been critically-acclaimed for his silent film music compositions, offered live music on the piano with Svigals, the world’s leading klezmer fiddler, on the violin. An actress and singer, Seaton provided vital percussion and vocal elements for the scenes.
Because the film is silent, the musical accompaniment added sonic elements to an otherwise primarily visual experience. The three composers improvised the original soundtrack, a fact that was not revealed to the audience.
“Technically all three of us co-composed this. And it was completely improvised, completely,” Sosin said. “We watched the film before. We took very careful notes, so we knew what was coming, but musically there wasn’t an ounce of preparation.”
Robinson, who is considering film score as a career path, was impressed by the music and the composers in attendance.
He noted a pleasant contrast between the traditional sounds accompanying silent film to the more classical tones in the screening of “Aélita.”
“It was beautiful, expressive music … Hearing a really classical trio approach to film score was nice as opposed to the more traditional symphonic sounds we often get nowadays,” Robinson said. “Not that I have anything against modern film scoring — on the contrary, I think I prefer it, but it was interesting hearing that difference.”
Sosin invited Svigals to collaborate on a separate project together this week, in addition to joining the performance. The two met at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto an international silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy.
According to Svigals, before Wednesday night, she had composed for just one other film, the 1918 German movie, “The Yellow Jacket.”
“It involved watching the film over and over again and singing and playing until I found the right feeling for each scene,” Svigals said. “And then thinking about light motifs, symbolism [and] weaving different themes together. And it’s super fun.”
The “Aélita” screening was the last scheduled screening in the colloquium’s lineup this semester.
Gaby Mencio | firstname.lastname@example.org