By the Law (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Juliet Jacques 

Directed by Lev Kuleshov; written by Viktor Shklovsky and Lev Kuleshov, adapted from the story “The Unexpected” by Jack London; cinematography by Konstantin Kuznecov; with Aleksandra Khokhlova, Sergei Komarov, Vladimir Fogel, Porfiri Podobed, Piotr Galadzhev. DVD, B&W, silent, 78 min., 1926. Released by Edition Filmmuseum.

“We make films, Kuleshov made cinematography,” wrote Vsevolod Pudovkin in Art of the Cinema (1929), three years after he had left Kuleshov’s workshop to produce Mother,one of many internationally acclaimed Soviet works produced after the success of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.

Western enthusiasm for Eisenstein’s masterpiece disproved the popular Soviet belief that films with revolutionary subjects would not sell abroad. It also represented a triumph for the montage techniques that stemmed from Kuleshov’s theoretical writing, his ideas about juxtaposing two shots to create new meanings (the “Kuleshov effect”), later infused with Marxist dialectics by Eisenstein, his former student.

By mid-1926, several of Kuleshov’s protégés had outflanked him: he was known as a talented theorist but not a great practitioner, his reputation impaired by the commercial failure of The Death Ray (released in March 1925). This film tried to demonstrate various cinematographic innovations, including the “active participation of the working masses in revolutionary scenes” (something which Eisenstein staged more successfully), as well as showcasing each actor in Kuleshov’s Collective.

Although the vibrant avant-garde was given more creative freedom by Anatoly Lunacharsky—whom Lenin, concerned with the postrevolutionary civil war, had given autonomy over Soviet culture—Kuleshov’s films attracted criticism for their experimentation and ambiguous ideology. His popular American-style farce The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), which satirized certain party precepts, had alarmed censors even though its focus was on Western perceptions of Russia, and The Death Ray’s strident formalism stretched their patience close to the breaking point.

Goskino, the State Committee for Cinematography, considered dropping Kuleshov, turning down Pavel I, the script submitted by his Collective after Pudovkin’s departure. Kuleshov was granted a third and final chance, but his scenario for an adaptation of Jack London’s story “The Unexpected,” written with Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky, was initially declined as its plot and heroine Aleksandra Khokhlova (Kuleshov’s wife) were “not attractive enough.”

Kuleshov persuaded Goskino to define By the Law as an “experiment,” allowing him to film with a limited budget. The story, very much about individuals rather than the “revolutionary masses,” involved prospectors searching for gold on the banks of the Yukon River: after nonstakeholding Irishman Michael Dennin (played by Vladimir Fogel) discovers gold, his four companions relegate him to domestic duties as they search for more riches. Dennin snaps, shooting two as they eat in their Alaskan cabin, until he is restrained by Nelson (Sergei Komarov) and Nelson’s wife, Edith (Khokhlova), who insists on treating him “by the law.”

Only Komarov, Khohklova, and Fogel were paid: the minor roles were filled by Porfiri Podobed and Piotr Galadzhev between other assignments. A cast of three characters, divorced from civilization by the climate, was enough to create a narrative, played out in a single interior set and an outdoor clearing near Moscow. To the studio’s amazement, By the Law—the cheapest film ever produced in Russia, according to Jay Leyda’s Kino—earned a warm reception abroad, with Western critics (particularly poet H.D. in England’s modernist journal Close Up) enthralled by the level of tension built without any change of location or costume, individual psychology, parallel action, or ideological didacticism.

By the Law has no hero, no villain, and no real character development. Kuleshov’s spare opening shots cut swiftly from the Yukon River to a single tree (the film’s signature image) to the team’s dog, then to Dennin, who is established not so much as the film’s protagonist as the instigator of its action, and the only one shown to have any connection with the natural world.

Resentful over his treatment, Dennin becomes steadily more psychotic, until he is taunted over dinner. In one of the film’s relatively few intertitles, Harky (Galadzhev) and Dutchy (Podobed) joke that Dennin has “lost his appetite due to envy”—their laughs cost them their lives. Dennin shoots both, the shot of Dutchy slumped onto his plate, which flips up and presses into his face, providing one of Kuleshov’s most remarkable images (taken straight from London’s text).

Edith stops Nelson from killing Dennin, unwittingly exposing the hypocrisy beneath U.S. morality in one sentence: “Not without the law—it’s a white man!” The couple tie Dennin up and step outside to bury his victims, their worries that the Yukon may flood the graves indicating that further drama will arise less from the possibility that Dennin will escape his bonds—they guard him with their rifles—and more from the likelihood that nature will bar their return to “civilized” judicial structures, and that they will have to find a way to confer authority upon themselves.

As floods and ice hem them in, the participants become more hysterical, and ordinarily banal moments assume huge significance. When his tobacco runs out, Nelson takes Dennin’s, hinting towards, then revealing, his lingering desire to kill the murderer, which Dennin feeds with intermittent demands to die. Nelson’s smoking starts a fire, causing an explosion that blasts Dennin into the flood water surrounding their cabin, and when Nelson raises an axe to Dennin, Edith again has to prevent her husband’s “eye-for-an-eye” doctrine from trumping her New Testament beliefs.

Edith is the film’s pivotal element, and a contemporary viewer’s enjoyment of By the Law hinges largely on whether or not s/he can accept Khokhlova’s performance. Standing as a cipher for Western ethics and its sustenance through self-appointed guardians, Khokhlova sometimes ovecompensates for the lack of motivation for her adherence to English law with huge stares and flailing gestures, which occasionally feel like parodies of the expressionist acting fashionable in Twenties theater and often used in lieu of cinematic sound. For the most part, Khokhlova intrigues rather than infuriates, but the balance is often tested.

By contrast, Fogel is a perfectly-pitched study in psychopathy. Kuleshov taught his actors to express themselves as much through their limbs as their faces, and rising fury is expressed in his restless struggling, and particularly the twitching of his moustache. This generates one of the film’s most fraught episodes, as Dennin demands that Nelson shave him. As Nelson runs the blade over Dennin’s neck, both realize how much power has been ceded, and Dennin’s helplessness as Nelson ponders whether or not to circumvent his wife’s wishes creates a peak in Kuleshov’s subtle narrative rhythm.

Soon after, the film’s scenario offers itself one last chance to explain its characters’ actions, which it swiftly, absolutely refuses. In a scene where the three “celebrate” Edith’s birthday, borrowed by Shklovsky from Dostoyevsky, she attempts to empathize with Dennin, asking why he killed their colleagues. All he ventures is that, “It seemed so terribly simple to me.” Finally, the couple concedes defeat and Edith brings a Bible and a picture of Queen Victoria as they try the Irishman by English law, Kuleshov ensuring that the drama’s source remains his minimalist symbolism.

The trial is too absurd, its “verdict” entirely inevitable, to produce any real suspense: the key issue lies in whether or not Edith and Nelson—its witnesses, jury, and judges—can make their punishment hold. The image of three silhouettes between two pine trees forms another of the film’s signature shots, its impact heightened by Kuleshov’s restrained (in comparison with Mr. West) use of his own “effect,” cutting to sparse shots of a hastily-constructed noose and the cold, indifferent world around them.

As Edith and Nelson try to regroup, back in the cabin after hanging Dennin, the film delivers its one great surprise. I will not reveal it here, but Kuleshov and Shklovsky ask the viewer to consider how their decision to apply Christian law themselves, rather than hand it over to a more distant state apparatus, will affect their psychologies, and how far they can trust their own judgment now that they have acted without any verifiable authority.

By the Law’s Western acclaim rested more in the film’s “Americanism” than its examination of the place of the individual within Soviet culture, which caused Kuleshov problems at home, particularly after Stalin’s insistence on cinematic Socialist Realism led to him being accused of “sins of formalism.” The film inspired Abram Room’s Bed and Sofa(1927), also cowritten by Shklovsky and again starring Fogel (who sadly committed suicide just two years later) in a cast of three, but By the Law’s style may not have transferred to the sound film even if its invention had not coincided with the Stalinization of domestic film. As it stood, no school was built on Kuleshov’s sparse technique, and despite its influence on Carl Dreyer’s similarly claustrophobic masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), By the Law represented not so much the beginning of a new type of silent film as its false dawn.

Juliet Jacques is an English author who has written for The Guardian and The New Statesman, among other publications and Websites. Her “Transgender Journey” column was longlisted for the 2011 Orwell Prize. She also writes on literature, gender, comedy, music and soccer.

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Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.