Po Zakonu (By the Law) Review
The Unexpected, a 1907 short story by Jack London, forms the basis for Lev Kuleshov's 1926 feature By the Law (Po zakonu). As with London's better-known, and much adapted, novels Call of the Wild and White Fang, the setting is the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. Yet the story here is far more compact, a miniature even. A party of five prospectors - a Swede and his English wife, an Irishman, a Dutchman and an American - occupy an isolated cabin near the coast. Their seemingly amicable existence turns murderous upon the discovery of gold, at which point Dennin, the Irishman, becomes increasingly removed from the group. Driven by envy, and the fact that it was he who had discovered the gold, he sets about killing the four other members. Successful in dispatching the Dutchman and the American (though not immediately in the case of the latter), he is bundled to the floor before completing his task on the other two. What follows is an intense psychodrama and the weather moves in and the three remain in close company within the cabin. The husband, Nelson, wants to murder Dennin as revenge; his wife, Edith, says they must rely on the law, a Bible near to hand making it clear where her morals lie.
By the Law was made in reaction to Kuleshov's previous feature, The Death Ray, an expensive science fiction epic that blended elements of the melodrama and the American detective thriller. The film flopped and met with criticism from Kuleshov's contemporaries; Dziga Vertov dismissed it as "opium for the masses", whilst Sergei Eisenstein was similarly less than keen. Such was the lack of success that the director's earlier hit, The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, was all but forgotten. Thus By the Law was intended as a 'back-to-basics' project: minimal budget, minimal locations, minimal characters (it is, after all, a three-hander for much of its duration). The result is a complete streamlining of London's original. Kuleshov and co-writer Viktor Sklovskij have removed Edith's backstory, kept the dialogue down to the essentials, excised the Native American elements and the slightly tweaked the ending. What remains is taut and lean, relying solely on performance and the director's keen visual eye.
Occupying the three central roles are Aleksandra Khokhlova, Sergej Komarov and Vladimir Fogel. Khokhlova, playing Edith, makes the most instant impression of the three. Her performance is quite unlike those found elsewhere in silent cinema by female actors. (The nearest comparison I could give, if pressed, would be H.D. in Kenneth MacPherson's excellent Borderline.) She acts 'large' in a manner not unsurprising for the pre-talkies, yet her style isn't simply melodrama as an easy route to conveying emotion. Similarly, you could describe her as terrifying or freakish yet, again, this implies something far simpler, and more basic, than what is actually going on. In the accompanying booklet Barbara Wurm describes her as "the 'poster girl' of [Kuleshov's] experimental Actor-Laboratory", and she was also the director's partner. This connection between the two perhaps explains the selflessness of her performance. Essentially she isn't afraid to demonstrate the harsher, and harder, sides of Edith. She does invoke terror, but it comes from somewhere personal rather than being pantomime. Her character isn't a monster, but that doesn't mean she is incapable of being monstrous. As way of contrast, consider amongst the bonus features the fragment from Vasa znakomaja/Your Acquaintance, the 1927 Kuleshov film of which only the fourth reel survives. Made as a vehicle for Khokhlova, here she plays a prototypical screwball-type: a clumsy journalist yet very much rooted modern era. Although we only have 18 minutes to sample - losing approximately an hour's worth of screen time - the difference between her performances in By the Law and here are plain to see. The overt style of the former (which an inattentive reaction may label as overacting) was clearly no fluke, but a carefully considered approach.
Set alongside Khokhlova, Komarov and Fogel appear comparatively restrained. Fogel (playing the Irishman, Dennin) nonetheless manages a remarkable intensity thanks primarily to his expressive eyes. Indeed, his face appears to shrink whenever he glares in the camera's general direction. Alongside Fogel and Khokhlova, Komarov (as Edith's husband, Nelson) can only serve as an area of calm and quiet. Despite Nelson's initial reaction of attempting to beat Dennin to death following the two murders, he subsequently mellows as communication breaks down, off-set nicely by his wife's increasingly unhinged behaviour and the Irishman's continually brooding anger. Furthermore, these differing levels of intensity between the performances allows the melodrama to stay in check; whilst each of the characters has either shown or seems capable of great violence, Kuleshov has gauged the temperaments just right so that proceedings never threaten to tumble into pure hysteria.
It's important to stress, however, that By the Law is no way a piece of filmed theatre. Despite the tiny cast list and largely single setting, this is also a film in possession of a wonderful visual style. Kuleshov is interested in the details and peppers his montage with close-ups. For the most part this seems primarily observational as he watches a pair of hands or something similarly banal. Admittedly the editing rhythms prevent a 'documentary' veneer, if you will; the quick cuts are motivated more by the creation of tension than they are any attempts at realism. And yet this focus on the ordinary also works as a means of lulling the audience. When, for example, Dennin unleashes his murderous rage on his companions, the effect is all the more forceful as these details are unavoidably of a more shocking nature. Kuleshov remains as observational as before, but this time it is on such striking moments as a dying man facedown in a plate of beans, which slowly trickle onto the floor thanks to his forehead forcing the plate to an angle of forty-five degrees. Interestingly, this is exactly as described in London's short story, and yet it fits into By the Law's methods so completely you immediately believe that Kuleshov and Sklovskij must have come up with it themselves.
This mixture of the on-the-surface banal and outright shocking is key to maintaining the tension throughout. The fact that Dennin's shotgun makes an appearance so early on in By the Law and in such a forceful manner prevents the film from quietening down afterwards. There is always the possibility that Kuleshov's next edit will ratchet up the action once more and as such the audience never feels a sense of respite. Furthermore, the new score by Franz Reisecker that accompanies this DVD edition is just as keyed into the tension. Reisecker (who has previously re-scored Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin) started out in punk bands before moving into drum and bass under the Lichtenberg moniker in the late nineties. Since then he has moved further into electronica and post-rock and worked with other experimental Austrian musicians. His score for By the Law fits under the electronica tag most comfortably and will likely split audiences, especially those who prefer traditional as opposed to modern accompaniment to their silents. Yet, for me, the music here worked perfectly. As the electronic whirrs and burbles rumbled over the imagery - at times even entering into a motorik groove - it can't help but add to the sense of ever-increasing unease. Certainly, it can be off-kilter, as when Reisecker's compositions seem almost at odds with the immediate onscreen action, but surely this is entirely compatible with the mood Kuleshov is creating? By the Law is an intense and unsettling experience; it only makes sense that its accompaniment should highlight this as much as possible.
By the Law is the latest release from the Edition Filmmuseum label and comes with the spine number 63. The film and its extras are presented on a single DVD-9 and come with an accompanying bilingual booklet totalling 16 pages and containing a new essay by Barbara Wurm and an interview with composer Franz Reisecker. The film itself is presented in its original aspect ratio and Russian language intertitles (with optional English, French and German subtitles). The transfer was taken from a standard definition telecine from the 35mm preservation positive. Unsurprisingly, given By the Law's age, there are signs of damage throughout in the form of scratches and other signs of wear, but importantly none of this proves distracting, whilst the requisite levels of detail, clarity and contrast are all in place. (To the best of my knowledge this also marks the film's debut onto DVD, having previously been issued on VHS in the US by Kino as a double bill with Pudovkin's wonderful short Chess Fever.)
The soundtrack, as fully expected, sounds superb. There are no flaws to discern, though I did hope that a 5.1 option would have been available as well as the DD2.0 we find here. Of course, this stereo offering is fine as it is, yet a more enveloping mix - one that could attain something closer to the atmosphere of the 'live cinema' premiere of the score at the Film Museum in January 2011 - would have been especially welcome.
The extras, as well as the booklet, amount to the surviving fragment of Your Acquaintance as mentioned in the main text of this review. Given that only one reel remains, and thus we are missing about an hour's worth of material, it is hard to comment in any constructive way of what is present. However, it does allow a glimpse of Aleksandra Khokhlova in an entirely different role to that of By the Law, plus some impressive set designs by the avant-garde artist Aleksandr Rodcenko. As with the main feature, the original Russian intertitles are present and accompanied by optional English, French and German subtitles. It is also worth noting that the print is in considerably worse shape than that of By the Law, but its presence is welcome nonetheless.
'By the Law' can be purchased through the Edition Filmmuseum website.