Throughout its history, the Soviet Union felt like the final frontier to many Americans. What was happening on the other side of that iron curtain? The Russians wondered too. Since travel between the countries was so limited, their inhabitants often had to turn for information to the cultural products that made it both ways past Russia's gatekeepers. How better to hide meaning than in fairy tales and outer space? The Pacific Film Archive celebrates an age of anxiety and this age of information with its marvelous series "From the Stars to the Tsars: A Journey Through Russian Fantastik Cinema."
The films of "From the Stars to the Tsars" span the period from the 1912 short The Cameraman's Revenge and Aelita, Queen of Mars the 1924 silent classic that inspired Guy Maddin's The Heart of the World to 2005's First on the Moon. The series's other notable traversal is between high and low culture. Some entries were partly seen at drive-ins in the 1960s thanks to Roger Corman, who bought the rights to The Heavens Call (1959) and Planet of Storms (1961) and scavenged their footage; To the Stars by Hard Ways (1982; reedited 2001) made an appearance as Humanoid Woman on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Then there are the films more familiar to art house patrons; the two by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972's Solaris and 1979's Stalker, cemented his reputation, and the former was hailed as the Soviet response to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The rest of the series falls between these poles. Although their politics and plots vary, all the films share a joy in the medium's magic and an affinity for dazzling and provocative visual effects, whether they be ridiculous, sublime (the signal that Stalker's mysterious Zone is ready for its visitors is a marvel of quiet beauty), or both.
Another obvious draw is these films' Russian-ness. Ruslan and Ludmila (1972) is based on an Aleksandr Pushkin epic, and Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka (1961) is an adaptation of a story by Nikolay Gogol. There is no Soviet Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but some movies manage to work in anti-Western views. The Amphibian Man, shot in Cuba in 1962, offers a damning critique of capitalism in the person of its villain (Mikhail Kozakov), a dishonest, slave-driving, anything-for-a-pearl bastard who wants to marry the girl our hero loves against her will, of course. Zero City, filmed at the height of perestroika, includes a speech by the town prosecutor (Vladimir Menshov) against European ideas, which he says are all the more fatal for their rationality and practicality.
This is not to say that the Soviet Union escapes its directors' indignation. The clearest examples come at its end points, the start and finish of the great people's experiment. Aelita shows class conflict and housing shortages; made more than 60 years later, 1988's Zero City depicts the denunciation and rehabilitation of rock 'n' roll and its partisans as caprices all the worse for their life-destroying results. But the most transparent criticism comes in 2005's First on the Moon. Made well past the fall of the USSR, the film is a look back, documentary style, at its country's space program, which in this version beat the Americans' to the earth's natural satellite. There are winks to the fictionality of this exercise via sometimes too-cinematic shots, but the most obvious touches are images such as that of a group of children saluting with straight faces "the cause of Stalin and Lenin," then breaking into laughter.