To assert its modernity and to propagandize, the revolutionary Soviet Union seized upon the medium of film as its special artistic territory. Thus Soviet cinema came to dominate the decade with superior examples of the summit of film art, the black-and-white silent film. The result: an explosion of energy and genius that filmmaking would not see again until the French New Wave in the late Fifties. In light of this generalization, one would think that a famous Soviet film of the period, Lev Kuleshov’s By the Law (Po zakonu; Dura Lex), would prove an outstanding piece of work. This is not the case, however.
Instead, By the Law is a trivial and academic exercise, a film that generates more suspense than it does intriguing philosophy or insight into the human condition. Based on the story “The Unexpected” by Jack London, of all people, it is more manipulative entertainment than probing or serious art. One can only wonder as to how it came by its reputation.
A team of five prospectors for gold in the Yukon diminishes to three when one of them, an Irishman who feels he is being treated as the group’s untouchable, succeeds in killing two others before he is subdued by the remaining two, a married couple, and tied up. Eventually he is tried and hanged according to British law out in the wilderness by the two survivors, who fear their own deaths in the meantime if they wait for proper authorities to take the criminal in.
There is almost nothing to commend this film. The editing is of the superficial variety most familiar from films by D. W. Griffith, whose work Kuleshov studied. The arty compositions, particularly outdoors, are pointless except for their display of Nature’s roughness. The acting is preposterous, especially the bug-eyed performance by Aleksandra Khokhlova as the sole female of the group. Every aspect of the film is exaggerated, strenuous. Nor does it help that the final confrontation between the hanged man, seemingly quite alive, and his two jurors and judges is indecipherable as to being either realistic or (Edgar Allan) poetic—a projection of the survivors’ terror. The film is a jumble.
Chaplin was among Kuleshov’s favorites, and the influence of Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) is striking; but The Gold Rush, one of the two or three greatest American films, is profound and soul-shaking. If it were only half as good, it would still be vastly superior to By the Law, which even has a hard time relating the extreme Alaskan environment causally to the behaviors of its characters.
By the Law is a terrible disappointment.
The scenarist is Viktor Shklovsky; the cinematographer, Konstantin Kuznetsov.