Loss of Sensation

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ 

(5/10) In a nutshell: A 1935 communist propaganda film with quite a few enjoyable quirks. Capitalists and communists fight over an army of robots that is controlled by saxophone. Based on a story by “The Jules Verne of Ukraine” and directed with a certain expressionist and avantgarde flair, the film is not without its merits, although the acting is stiff and amateurish and the script and dialogue leave room for improvement.

Loss of Sensation / Jim Ripple’s Robot (Gibel Sensatsii / Robot Dzhima Ripl). 1935, Soviet Union. Directed by Alexandr Andriyevskiy. Written by Georgiy Grebner. Based on the novella Idut Roborati! by Vladimir Vladko (uncredited). Starring: Sergei Vecheslov, Vladimir Gardin, M. Volgina, Anna Chekulayeva. Nikolai Rybnikov, Vasili Orlov. Produced for Mezhrabpomfilm. IMDb score: 6.5

Capitalist robots dancing to modern jazz on a drunken sax in the 1934 Soviet sci-fi propaganda Gibel Sensatsii.

Capitalist robots dancing to modern jazz on a drunken sax in the 1935 Soviet sci-fi propaganda Gibel Sensatsii.

Loss of Sensation apparently made a tour of the modern art circuit in 2012 as a part of a collection of Soviet films, which has led to some commentators euphorically labelling it as a forgotten Soviet alternative to Fritz Lang’s silent sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis (1927, review). Well, let’s start off by putting that one to rest: it is not. Not because Loss of Sensation would necessarily be a bad film, but because Metropolis was made by one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema, on a budget that was the biggest the world had ever seen at that point, and the film subsequently laid the groundwork for futurism, mad scientist films, dystopian films, created the android as we know it and even inspired architecture and interior design, and has frequently been placed among the three best sci-fi films in history. Loss of Sensation has not.

Good.

I’m glad we got that out of the way.

Now to the film.

As is often the case with lesser known Russian and Soviet films, there are a few misconceptions flourishing on English language websites, but we’ll get to them later. First, let’s have a look at the plot:

The Soviet version of a conveyor belt. It kills.

The Soviet version of a conveyor belt. It kills.

The film starts with a peaceful view of of the ocean and a harbour, and men sitting idly on a bench. We follow a young man who curls up in the shadow of an archway, looks out to the sea with a forlorn gaze. Cut to a factory. The young man, Jim Ripple (Sergei Vecheslov) is an engineering student who is sent to the factory floor to carry out a secret experiment. This is – we learn – an unnamed capitalist country, and unlike the the worker-friendly utopia of the Soviet Union, the capitalists squeeze every ounce of sweat they can from their poor workers. In a version of the clock-like Moloch machine from Metropolis we see the workers toil on what looks like an automated merry-go-round, rather than by a conveyor belt – and the experiment is to see if the workers can handle their job if the merry-go-round spins faster. The results are disappointing. One man faints and another one goes crazy. The capitalist muses that he thought ”the proletariat had stronger nerves”.

Jim Ripple is appalled by the cruel experiment. He goes home to his wife in their working class home to tell her that the is sure he can make the machine to end it all. A robot to replace all workers. ”But why would you want to make all workers unemployed?” asks the wife Mary Ripple (Anna Chekulayeva). But this is not his point – the point is that when the robots do all the work for free, the prices will fall, and the whole capitalist system will come crashing down, and then we can rebuild a world of equality and justice. ”It’s stuffy in here, let me open a window”, replies Mary.

Jim Ripple, robot engineer.

Jim Ripple, robot engineer.

Well, said and done. On his graduation day Jim returns home to his working class family and friends with a mini-robot, MICRO, in tow. He shows how well it can work, and tells his family he has done it all for their benefit, but his brother Jack (Vladimir Gardin) promptly smashes it to pieces. Jim gets no sympathy for his idea of crushing capitalism by using their own weapons against them. No, says Jack, the capitalists will take control of your robots and crush us. Jim refuses to give in, and is thrown out of the house and the family as a class traitor.

But as soon as he is out the door, Jim is picked up by the capitalist masters, who give him unlimited funding and free hands to create robots for the industry. Moving up in the ranks, Jim enjoys the finery of capitalist life, with private chauffeurs, posh night clubs with cabarets and champagne, as well as the admiration of the top hat-wearing plutocrats and medal-adorned operetta generals. He is celebrated as a saviour of the nation as he introduces his masterpiece – the robot R.U.R – Ripple’s Universal Robot. Three meters tall, the robot is controlled by a saxophone and a whistle – it is not intelligent nor self-aware. As time goes on, Ripple creates an army of robots, but grows lonely and bitter – the struggle against capitalism now seems to be more about getting back at his brother Jack.

Secretly the workers have started to reassemble Jim’s original Micro-robot, the one that Jack smashed, in order to find out how to control it. Meanwhile the workers engage in a general strike. But by now Ripple’s robots have taken over the factories. The evil capitalists rile the workers by killing one of them with a robot. The workers revolt, but are smashed down by the robots – now controlled by the capitalists. They attack the town killing and crushing, the workers fight back with guns and Molotov cocktails, but to no avail. The devastated Jim Ripple tries to stop the robots, but his saxophone breaks, and he is trampled to death by his own creations. In the hour of despair an Indian immigrant worker (see what they did there?) gets the robot steering device working, take control of the robots and smashes the evil capitalists to a pulp.

Ripple's Universal Robot, R.U.R, actually designed by Boris Dubrovsky-Eshke.

Ripple’s Universal Robot, R.U.R,

I have previously frothed over reviewers calling films ”heavy-handed communist propaganda” just because they involve an element of class struggle (see Metropolis, Aelita, 1923, review). But let’s face it: this is heavy-handed communist propaganda. The problem with the film, though, is that despite this heavy-handed capitalism bashing, it still manages to get its ideological discussion muddled. Workers good, rich capitalists bad; so far so good. But what happened to the idea of destroying capitalism from within the system? Wasn’t that the whole point of building the robots. And then suddenly, the ball is just dropped and never returned to again.

Director Vasiliyevskiy.

Director Andriyevskiy.

Artistically the film is a mixed bag. There are too many lengthy and dumbed-down tirades about the evils of capitalism (even for a leftist like me) that drag the pacing of the film down. It doesn’t help that most of the actors speak terribly slowly as if they were explaining these things to five-year olds. Sergei Vecheslov as Jim (looking a bit like Conrad Veidt of Dr. Caligari, Casablanca and The Man who Laughs fame) carries his role adequately. There is a wonderful scene where he gets drunk, curses his brother and makes a whole assembly hall full of robots dance to his saxophone. Absolute genius. But other than that, the acting is mostly stagey, charicatured and amateurish.

This was Alexandr Andriyevskiy’s first film as a director and Mark Magidson’s first film as director of photography – and it shows. There are moments of pure visual genius, inspired by German expressionism and both French and Russian avant-garde. Apart from the dancing robots, beautifully filmed at skewed angles and a drunken, handheld camera, there is a great scene in the beginning of the film where Jim sits at a club with live music and comes upon the idea of robots when a strange puppeteer woman comes in displaying ”mechanical puppets” – looking like something out of an Picassoan nightmare. The fast-paced, delirious editing of the sequence combined with the strange modernistic jazz music by Sergei Vasilenko is directly from the handbook of cinematic innovator Lev Kuleshov (The Death Ray, 1924, review). It is hardly a coincidence that the puppeteer woman is played by Mrs Kuleshov herself, Alexandra Khokhlova. Andriyevskiy and Magidson triumph when it comes to creating atmosphere and suspense. The final half hour is filled with masterful shots of robots advancing in the shadows, faceless, immortal killing machines, remorselessly destroying everything in their path. The final minutes of the robots all in a row, marching toward the capitalist stronghold through the mist at the horizon is beautiful. But other times the direction is sloppy and uninspired, flat. The camerawork is sometimes shaky the setups are sometimes stagey where it is clearly not intended.

Alexandra Khokhlova, master of puppets.

Alexandra Khokhlova, master of puppets.

Andriyevskiy clearly has difficulties directing his actors, and he would direct only a handful more films in his career. He would later go on to an illustrous career as director of several Soviet film institutions, and as a lecturer. Most notably, he was the director of the Soviet Union’s stereoscopic film laboratory, where he made the first 3D version of Robinson Crusoe, that took Russia with storm in 1947. He also made the first stereoscopic 3D film – i.e. the first 3D film that was viewable without 3D glasses, in 1970. The fad clearly didn’t catch on.

Now, let’s talk a bit about those misconceptions I mentioned earlier. First of all the name. In Russian the film is called Гибель сенсацииGibel Sensatsii, or Loss of Sensation, or Loss of Feeling, as it is sometimes called. It was also called Робот Джима РипльRobot Dzhima Ripl; literally Robot of Dzhim Ripl. This takes us to the protagonist’s name. Most people get Dzhim – Jim right, but I have seen some strange transcriptions of Рипль. Often he is called Jim Ripl in English, but that is incorrect. Since the filmmakers based the film in America, they probably chose an English sounding name, like Ripple. Ripl is how you transcribe Ripple in Russian. The same way Bruce becomes Bryus and James becomes Dzheims. Some transcribers even call him Ripley, which is just wrong.

It is sometimes claimed that Loss of Sensation is an unauthorised adaptation of Czech author Karel Capek’s influential play R.U.R. – the play that invented the word ”robot”. But apart from the fact that Jim’s robots are called R.U.R. and the film concerns artificial beings replacing workers, the two stories have very little in common. Capek’s robots were not clunky steel monsters, but artificial, intelligent and benevolent humans, albeit assembled in factories. Capek painted a utopia, whereas the film paints a dystopia.

Book artwork for Vladimir Vladko's novella Idut Robotari! released in 1929.

Book artwork for Vladimir Vladko’s novella Idut Robotari! released in 1929.

As a matter of fact, the film is – authorised or not – an adaptation of Ukrainian author Vladimir Vladko’s short story Idut Robotari! The title can be loosely translated as Forward, Robots! This 1929 novella was Vladko’s first book, and one that would start the career of Ukraine’s most lauded sci-fi author. Vladko has been called the father of Ukrainian sci-fi and the Jules Verne of Ukraine. Along with Capek and Alexei Tolstoy (see The Death Ray, review), he is considered one of the forerunners of modern Soviet science fiction. In 1967 he fleshed out the story in the novel Zalizny Bunt (Iron Rebellion). The script for the film was adapted by Georgiy Grebner.

The production design is equally a mixed affair. When shot ”on location” in grand halls and theatres the film at its best echoes something of Marcel L’Herbier’s avantgardist experiment L’Inhumaine (1924, review). Apparent lack of funding also seems to drive the filmmakers to incorporate German expressionist styles of filming againts nondescript backgrounds and covering the set in darkness, but unlike Wiene, Murnau or Lang, Andriyevskiy mostly makes it look cheap. It is quite clear, though, that when the director has the time and focus, he has a flair for lighting, editing and camera placement. The robots themselves are probably the best designed robots to come out of cinema, Lang’s Maschinenmensch notwithstanding, – that is, as long as they stand still. They have a rugged, industrial, diesel-driven look about them, and look fairly menacing. But as soon as the huge things start moving they are hilariously wobbly and look like they are about to keel over at any minute – and the fact that they are made out of cardboard and rubber is all too obvious. But unlike many later robots, these are LOUD! When they move, they do so to the tune of a good old diesel engine, and the soundtrack to the final robot battle is a roaring wall of sound that would make any later industrial noise band weep with envy. The soundtrack is partly inspired by avantgarde jazz, which is quite interesting at times, and a bit annoying at other.

Robots on patrol in one of the more expressionistic shots of the film.

Robots on patrol in one of the more expressionistic shots of the film.

All in all, this is a mixed bag. Even though one might not agree with the Soviet propaganda, the film has its subtleties – such as the protagonist placing himself as a sort of mediator between the capitalists and the workers, and the latter part of the film has him reaching out to the workers from behind his robots in a plea for understanding and cooperation, only to have his gesture sabotaged. The ending with the socialist workers ruthlessly killing all the rich people with their robots is clearly open-ended. Even the most hardline communist can’t fail to see the inhumanity of the scene. But when all is said and done, the script is hardly subtle and propaganda is always propaganda, be it American schlock like Independence Day (1996) or communist schlock like Loss of Sensation. But truth be told – the puns made on behalf of Western culture are sometimes very much on the money, and I must admit to quite a few chuckles.

Artistically and technically the film has its high points, but the overall terrible acting and occasionally sloppy direction doesn’t help to cover up the plot holes and pot holes. Despite the propagandistic tone and plot, the actual filmmaking is surprisingly much outside the box at times, but the clash between avantgarde expressionism and concrete Soviet propagandism is not necessarily a winning combination.

Loss of Sensation / Jim Ripple’s Robot (Gibel Sensatsii / Robot Dzhima Ripl). 1935, Soviet Union. Directed by Alexandr Andriyevskiy. Written by Georgiy Grebner. Based on the novella Idut Roborati! by Vladimir Vladko (uncredited). Starring: Sergei Vecheslov, Vladimir Gardin, M. Volgina, Anna Chekulayeva. Nikolai Rybnikov, Vasili Orlov. Cinematography: Mark Magidson. Editing: Andriyevsky, Mikhail Doller. Art direction: Vladimir Kaplunovsky, Felix Boguslavsky, Vladimir Yegorov. Music: Sergei Vasilenko. Sound effects designer: V.I. Lukina. Robot design: Boris Dubrosbky-Eshke. Produced for Mezhrabpomfilm.

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