Monday, January 17, 2011

Robots of Ripley (aka The Death of Sensation) (1935)

Sinister Cinema has done a great service to film lovers of all stripes by making the Soviet film Robots of Ripley (aka The Death of Sensation) available to anyone who wants to see possibly the most visually impressive science fiction film of the 1930’s. This is a film who’s visuals should be as talked about as those in films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which this film seems to echo at times. It’s a film with robots which, while not as elegant as Metropolis’s Maria, certainly puts any other robot to shame (especially the ones in the cheesy American movie serials I love so much.)

The film is set in an unnamed capitalist country. In the factory where he works, the inventor Ripley is worried about the toll being taken by the assembly lines on the workers. Something has to be done. Sitting in a night club he sees a woman with puppets and forms the idea about making men of metal. Moving from a small scale robot on to ones that are about 10 to 12 feet tall Ripley makes an army of metal men that are the joy of the evil money men and the bane of the workers who see their jobs going the way of the wind. Is revolt not far off?

Let me get the painful part out of the way, the class warfare angle is terrible. The film stops periodically for long discussions angled toward explaining what is really good for the workers and all mankind. I’m not sure what exactly is said I don’t speak Russian (Sinister hasn’t subtitled the film, they only put in occasional narrative titles that explain what is going on), but from what I can understand from the few words I do know and from the context of the scenes it’s the old struggle between the classes. The film effectively stops during these sequences since the film becomes little more than people standing around talking. I suspect that the director wasn’t thrilled with these sequences either since those don’t have the visual flair of the rest of the film. If you are willing to suffer through the talk you’ll be rewarded by a film that will really please the eye with it’s gee whiz and oh wow factors.

Where do I begin to discuss the joys of this film?

Perhaps by saying that the black and white cinematography is some of the most beautiful you’re ever likely to see. Every shot is portrait and worthy of framing. The landscapes are amazing and the shots of the characters seem more like portraiture then shots from a film. It’s a film that look and feels like the finest silent film photography. Even the sequences in the night club or in the capitalist enclaves have the style and scale you only see in the big scale European silents.

The robots themselves are these big huge clunky things that look like the Mr Machine toy but way cooler. They are steam punk and industrial practical combined. As odd as they look they are the sort of things that weirdly make some sort of sense. They are also something you can’t take your eyes off of. I kept wanting to see more and more of the robots.(which bear a large RUR on their chests even though the film has nothing to do with the Karl Capek play). You know that the small robot is a man in a suit but the big ones make you ponder what exactly they did. Yes, the arms are at about a mans height but its clearly not just a man in a suit- and even then they don’t have normal hands.

The film is filled will wonderful sequences that delight. The opening shots of the city are just beautiful. The surreal factory with the turn table work stations where the accident that sparks Ripley to make the robots is weird and surreal. You have the first sequence in the night club which seems to be more something out of a German film from the 20’s then a Soviet film. Its jazzy and smokey and full of great faces. You have the girl who just stares and the men who try to look at her. We have the woman with the garish puppets that inspire Ripley. The sequence where Ripley unveils the huge robots to the captains of industry is an amazing set piece of growing wonder. Sinister Cinema in the write up for the film mentions the wonderful scene where Ripley is drunk and using his saxophone (the robots are controlled by sound) gets the robots moving in a weird dance that starts off awkward and builds into something that will make you wonder why the film and the sequence has been hidden from view (in a weird way that one sequence is worth the price of admission.) After that we have the sequences of the robots working and finally the battle between man and machine that kind of reminded me of bits from the Terminator films, only with the robots being controlled by other men and not Skynet.

I suspect that even the most jaded film fan will be amazed, I was….

This is a film that needs to be seen, for its pieces if not for it’s whole (even if as I said the politics make some of this a tough go).

Gregg Luce and Sinister need to be thanked for bringing this film to light.

See this film if you can. Sinister has it for sale, and hopefully it will show up elsewhere, preferably in film festivals.

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