Public Domain: Loss of Sensation (1935) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Mezhrabpomfilm

The question of machinery or automatons or more recently the discourse surrounding artificial intelligence is as old as literature, theater and cinema itself.  A topic that has been tackled numerous times over the century involving a manmade product tasked with performing human tasks to cut down on labor costs and the consequences that can arise from the gutting out of the human touch, the man vs. manmade mechanism concept and present debate is alive and well despite being ancient.  Such a notion of the human being replaced by an inanimate programmable object is at the heart of much of the world’s science-fiction storytelling whether it be in print, on stage or projected on a screen.  Whether it be Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the idea of artificial intelligence taking on a physical form that poses a threat to humankind remains an ongoing existential fear in fiction and now nonfiction.
Which brings us to a most unusual film to emerge from the 1930s Soviet Union with the proto-Robocop sci-fi fantasy sound thriller Loss of Sensation or as it has been called in some translations Jim Ripple’s Robots.  Produced by Mezhrabpomfilm in 1935, directed by Aleksandr Andriyevski and one of the first Soviet talkies at a transitional period for the global film industry shifting from silence to sound, this visually stunning effects-heavy piece is one of the great totally undiscovered pieces of visionary technically proficient science fiction as mad-scientist saga gone terribly awry with results amusing, startling and ultimately unforgettable.  Long thought to be lost media, the film recently resurfaced in a German blu-ray set as painstakingly restored as the source can be.  Despite many blemishes, black-outs and irreparable damage on the print, this is one genuinely wild Paul Verhoeven-esque kind of science-fiction dystopian romp.

Loosely based on the 1929 Ukrainian novel Iron Riot or The Workers Are Coming by Volodymyr Vladak with aspects of Czech playwright Karel ńĆapek’s R.U.R. sprinkled in, the film tells the tale of Jim Ripple (Sergei Vecheslov) an engineer working to design cheaply produced robots which he can control with a saxophone to try and assist workers with their labor.  Given he’s from a worker’s family himself and all the efforts do is hinder the workplace, his comrades consider him a traitor.  While the government expresses an interest in Jim Ripple’s robots’ potential military applications, a worker’s strike is brewing over employees being replaced with robots and when the drunk-on-power mad Ripple tries to demonstrate the usefulness of the machinery a worker is inadvertently crushed to death, sparking an all-out conflict between man and machine not even Jim himself seems able to stop.

Partially at the source a plea for Ukraine’s independence, partially a reworking of Rossum’s Universal Robots right down to the R.U.R. logo despite Soviet efforts to say otherwise, Loss of Sensation aka Jim Ripple’s Robots despite time-honored Soviet dialogue blasting the evils of capitalism winds up being an inspired and, believe it or not, fun science-fiction endeavor.  Spoken of the same breath as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in terms of man playing God while criticizing the misuse of technical innovation.  One of the standout centerpieces of this startlingly violent film for its day involves an intoxicated Jim Ripple standing in the center of his robot army with a saxophone on hand jamming out to a drunken dance robot medley while military forces try to break in and seize control.  An extravagant sequence of man literally drunk on power on the cusp of madness, its an extraordinary scene that evokes elements of hilarity and horror with a bit of musicality to the mayhem.

Shot by none other than Mikhail Kalatazov’s True Friends cinematographer Mark Magidson who does some truly wild setups with numerous Dutch angles and juxtaposition between wide-angled epic vistas and claustrophobic encroaching close-ups and scored by The Golden Taiga composer Sergei Vasilenko, Loss of Sensation sensually speaking is kind of a miniature feast.  From the subversion of jazz music with the saxophone used as an instrument of control over his mechanized electronic zombies, the film achieves an almost phantasmagorical effect on the viewer.  Performance-wise Sergei Vecheslov is wonderful as the mad-scientist who from the very beginning with his cold-piercing stern stare suggests a man seeing a million miles ahead through tunnel vision no one else can break through.  Also strong are the cast members playing Jim’s beleaguered family members including Maria Volgina as his sister Claire who longs to bring her brother back to reality but makes a terrifying discovery in the process.

If Paul Verhoeven lived in the 1930s Soviet Union he would probably adapt a film that looks and sounds like Loss of Sensation, one of the earliest sound movies dealing with the notion of controlled machinery ala drones to try and alter the course of the world.  While the history of how it came to be and what sources it drew the heaviest from remain hotly debated in contention to this day, the finished result onscreen remains extraordinary with some stunning visual compositions that would make Orson Welles blush.  Scenes of the giant robots looming over its troubled creator creeping out of the shadows into the light are almost painterly in their juxtaposition of hard bright light and heavy darkness.  Science-fiction film aficionados keen on unearthing as much forgotten gems from the early 1900s as possible have something of a little goldmine on their hands with Loss of Sensation, one of the best robot sci-fi horror movies you’ve never heard of!

--Andrew Kotwicki