Po zakonu (1926)

3 02 2010

If I can make one conclusion from the two films I’ve seen of Lev Kuleshov, it’s that he isn’t the least bit afraid to wear the influence of America on his sleeve. Like with Mr. West, no particular director comes to mind, except maybe Griffith here and there. I guess the Americana tone is unavoidable when you base a story off of Jack London’s work, but even then, one can’t deny that Kuleshov had his eye on the west. One substantial difference here is the fact that Kuleshov isn’t attempting something light-hearted or even frivolous, both terms I would use to describe Mr. West, but instead something much more serious. It’s probably downbeat to a fault, in all honesty, but I prefer that to the simple distraction.

While I think very highly of this film, I will also be the first to admit that Kuleshov isn’t close to the great Aleksandr Dovzhenko, but that’s an unfair comparison. Very few directors (of the era or otherwise) would go on to accomplish the fierce and rapid pace of the editing in Arsenal. Kuleshov puts forth a good effort, none the less. The sequence in which Dennin, ahem, “takes out his frustration” on his co-workers is hauntingly beautiful. Following what seems to be a killing spree, the audience is attacked with sensual close-ups of things like an inactive human head planted firmly in a bowl of soup (or beans?) which only builds the tension between those that managed to survive the tragedy.

This is where the story essentially “gets going” as Dennin, along with a surviving couple remain stranded upon a frozen river – one which thaws rather quickly. The tension is palpable and resembles that of a more artificial or constructed chamber melodrama. While Kuleshov does have a few stage-y shots here and there, he mostly keeps his camera close, emphasizing the physical and mental toll that isolation takes on the three survivors. It’s the sort of experience that seems pretty flat on paper, but it definitely works, assuming one is not afraid to live with the rather tragic principle.

The film’s title is translated into English as By the Law, which comes from the moral standards that the film’s lone female, Edith, places on her violent husband. He is more than willing to dispose of Dennin himself, but like countless westerns after the fact (Raoul Walsh’s Along the Great Divide comes to mind) the criminal is preserved by the fact that he cannot properly be punished without the help of the law. It plays out silly here, since I’m not sure what interest Kuleshov must have held in the American judicial system, but I suppose he saw some relevance in it. I can’t question his film as a whole, though, because it is very, very good.

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