Gibel’ Sensatsii / Loss of Feeling: good-looking film about robots and workers versus capitalists

Aleksandr Andriyevsky, “Gibel’ Sensatsii / Loss of Feeling” (1935)

A very handsome-looking film made in 1935, “Gibel’ Sensatsii” is sometimes also known as “The Robots of Ripley”, “Loss of Feeling” or “The Loss of Sensation”. For a long time the film was thought to be based on Karel Capek’s play “R.U.R.” and some websites still repeat this canard. A young idealistic engineer, Jim Ripley, distressed at the suffering of workers on an assembly line in a factory, invents a line of robots to take over the work. The capitalists who own and run the factory hijack his idea and sack all the humans at the factory, replacing them with the robots. Initially the workers welcome the robots but the capitalists controlling the machines use them to attack and oppress the proletariat. The engineer attempts to regain control of his inventions but fails during the attack. A group of workers manages to subvert the capitalists’ control of the robots and in scenes of fire, destruction and outright warfare, workers and robots alike converge on the capitalists’ hide-out and destroy their slave-masters.

I was daft enough to watch the film without English sub-titles so a lot of the humour in the film went right over my head. There are parts of the film that look like parodies of Hollywood film genres like musicals: in one scene, a chorus line of girls is replicated with a Fred Astaire clone who sings in a high-pitched, effeminate voice. A running gag through the film is that Jim controls the robots he creates by playing a whistle or a saxophone, leading to a very surreal scene in which, drunk, he plays a sax and the giant robots around him sway and dance in time to the music! The capitalists are presented as figures to be ridiculed and the workers, however comic some of them might appear, are usually practical, down-to-earth types who mean well.

The pro-Soviet leanings are deliberate and the film hammers home its loyalty to the Soviet Union heavily. Wealthy capitalist society is decadent and parasitic and the workers, hard-working, patient and enduring, strive for honesty and dignity in their lives when and where they can. If there are hidden messages in the film for audiences in the 1930s to take home, one of them must surely be that no matter how different in looks, cultural background, abilities and skills  robots and workers might be, when both are oppressed by the same enemy, both can and should unite and work to defeat the common foe. The pace of the narrative is slow for much of the movie but in the last half hour the story really starts to speed up as the plot becomes an action thriller piece and segues into war movie mode. Other than the idea of robots replacing workers, being enslaved themselves and joining with the humans to rebel against the factory bosses, the film is not very original in its plot and ideas: even the idea of the robots lacking souls (which gives the film its Russian title) and being unthinking, inhumane automatons is an idea that was already frayed and worn around the edges at the time of the film’s making. Some people might catch an extra level of meaning in the title, in that all humans, be they slave-driver or slave, also lose feeling and connection with one another, their environment and nature generally when placed in situations and relationships where one exploits and bullies the other: certainly the capitalists in the film look as likely to cheat and screw one another as they do to a class of human beings they consider beneath them. Our idealistic engineer, symbolic of the chattering classes and the would-be hero trying to connect heart and head as his counterpart in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” did successfully, is just as brusquely brushed aside as those he tries to help.

Not being able to concentrate on the dialogue and any hidden messages or puns it might contain meant I was free to savour the film’s visual impact which owes something to the art movements of the 1920s and 1930s; there are scenes that look very Expressionistic, especially in the use of shadows to suggest something sinister about the robots. Film sets are staged with dramatic flair: most sets are very minimal in presentation, allowing action, character (or character stereotypes anyway) and dialogue to dominate. Even outdoor scenes, filmed from afar, have drama as robots and workers from over the far horizons advance together towards the camera. There are some stunning scenes, featuring no dialogue or sound but just music, that hark back to the silent film era. The film’s highlights are scenes where the giant robots feature and of these, the ones that stand out the most are the more surreal scenes such as the dancing robots sequence and the scenes of rebellion and war in the last ten minutes of the film.

The acting is not great and some of it is histrionic and staged even by the standards of populist films aimed at the general public. The characters are representative of a particular kind of story-telling narrative aimed at education and inculcating the right values: the idealistic hero who sacrifices himself trying to do good for his people; the hero’s lady-friend who foresees and dreads the inevitable doom that faces him; the stoic workers, filled with heroic revolutionary spirit but also good-humoured, helpful and ready for a celebration; and the capitalists who never miss an opportunity to amass wealth for themselves, especially if that means treading all over the maximum number of workers possible and exploiting an engineer’s original idea for their selfish ends.

For a film that tries to be everything to everyone – there are elements from science fiction, musical comedies, action thriller films and war movies – “Gibel’ Sensatsii” ties its different influences well together. For non-Russian speakers, it’s not difficult to follow and although it is a propaganda piece of its time, its resolution is ambiguous and open-ended.

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