Monday, February 25, 2013

By the Law

In December, I blogged about Lev Kuleshov's The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks.  As entertaining as this work is, it must be noted that it was used as a means for Kuleshov to experiment with previously used techniques (as seen in popular American films) and to forge and devise a language of cinema all his own.

This month, I'm writing about a very different Kuleshov film, the third produced with the actors from his Experimental Cine-Laboratory.  This is By the Law, a film whose plot is based on the short story The Unexpected by Jack London and adapted for the screen by Kuleshov and Viktor Shklovsky.  Though story is all London's, the film's essence, delivery, and character appear more reflective of the work of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  But then again, this is a Russian film, directed by a Russian director, and adapted by Russian writers, so would one expect much less?

By the Law is a major achievement of economic film production, proving that a truly great film can indeed be produced on a limited budget.  By the time of its production, Kuleshov has clearly come into his own, utilizing more poetic techniques to illustrate his narratives.  Consequently, the action and high tension of Mr. West are hardly apparent in this film.  The pacing is much more restrained and deliberate, slowly bringing the viewer into the story.  Though some film analysts have likened certain images in this work to the fundamentally abstract and anguished settings of German Expressionist films, its overall character appears more reflective of French Impressionism, though even this is problematic as there is no total consensus on what precisely constitutes French Impressionism as a unified style.

The plot of By the Law involves a gold digging expedition in Canada.  The characters include the Irishman Michael Dennin (Vladimir Fogel), the Swede Hans Nelson (Sergei Komarov), Hans' English wife Edith (Aleksandra Khokhlova), the Dutchy (Porfiri Podobed), and Harky (Pyotr Galadzhev).

Yet, it must be noted clearly from the outset that perhaps the greatest character of the film is one not played by any actor.  This is nature, whose presence and influence can be felt in every scene and image.  A central theme of the film is the unpredictable and seemingly uncontrollable character of nature, a fact that distinguishes Kuleshov's film markedly from London's original short story.

Within the title alone one can see the difference.  While London's original story is entitled The Unexpected and focus on an "unexpected" situation that brings out "unexpected" behaviors in the characters, Kuleshov chose to call his film By the Law.  This is significant as it highlights the basic tension of the entire film: the conflict between the law of civilization on one hand and the law of nature on the other.

Edith Nelson, portrayed by Kuleshov's wife and muse, Aleksandra Khokhlova.

The film's story begins when Dennin manages to find a spot where there is gold much to the group's delight.  Subsequently, the company experiences "good fortune all winter long."

Edith searches for gold in a gold pan.

Unfortunately, as time goes on, Dennin reaps little of the benefit of this discovery.  Instead, he is relegated to menial tasks (like washing clothes), which he deeply resents.  One day, when returning to the cabin, Dennin perceives his fellow explorers as making fun of him.  In a burst of anger, he turns his shotgun against them and shoots, killing the Dutchy and Harky.  The Nelson couple manage to wrestle Dennin to the ground and grab the gun.  They then tie him up, bury the two killed men, and resolve to try Dennin by Victorian law, despite their being located in a total wilderness.

It is here where the basic conflict of the film exists: the tension between nature on one side and the human being on the other.  Edith and Hans are both work to protect themselves against becoming part of the savage "wilderness" while Dennin, by his acts, has already one foot in the "uncivilized" world.   The characters here are very much "on the edge," both in a physical and psychological sense.  They turn to the "law" as a stabilizing force, with Victorian law presented as a means of "civilizing" the nature that surrounds them and Christian law as a means of interpreting it.

Yet, while both Hans and Edith are very much in agreement on trying Dennin based on the law, there are differences even between them.  Edith is horrified by the thought of any killing and informed by her Christian ethic, is compassionate and forgiving toward Dennin.  Hans, by contrast, is filled with unforgiving rage and seeks to kill Dennin no matter what.   In this regard, Hans is much closer to "uncivilized" nature than Edith and it is often up to Edith to keep him from becoming totally "barbaric" and "uncivilized."

Hans (Sergei Komarov)

Edith (Aleksandra Khokhlova)

Dennin (Vladimir Fogel)
Edith guards Dennin.

Edith on edge.

Hans, Edith, and Dennin celebrate Edith's birthday.

In the end, despite Edith's strong religious and ethical convictions, Dennin is sentenced to death, according to Victorian law.

Dennin pictures his execution.

In the subsequent execution sequence, Edith struggles to deliver her "last rites" sermon.  She becomes totally bereaved and her religiosity, apparent throughout the film, becomes more fanatical.  It is here where we are treated to perhaps one of Khokhlova's finest acting performances.

Edith performs the "last rites."

Just as the Dennin is about to be finally hanged for his crimes, Edith declares, sobbing, "may God accept you into His kingdom."  Subsequently, Dennin looks toward the sky to see an entanglement of tree branches, illustrating the incongruency between Edith's received morals and the actual situation of the characters.  It also illustrates the much greater incongruency between Edith's interpretation of nature via her literal devotion to the Bible and the actual nature that surrounds (and arguably envelops) the characters.

Then there is the film's twist ending.  This departure from the original story makes the film uniquely Kuleshov's own.  In London's original, Dennin is hanged as a group of Native Americans watch.  In Kuleshov's version, Dennin does not die but instead returns to Nelsons (in a truly Dostoyevsky-esque manner). Significantly, he does not take any retribution on his executors, just his share of the gold.  He then gives them his noose for "good luck" before trudging off into the rain.  The effort by Hans and Edith to "civilize" nature and live according to the law has been undermined by the course of nature itself!

Dennin survives

The twist ending is significant as it says a lot about the role of nature in the film.  Whereas in London's original, it appears as though "civilized law" has triumphed over nature, Kuleshov illustrates that the course of nature is entirely unpredictable and that nature can never be entirely defeated or reigned in by any laws, save for its own.

This unique take is in and of itself a very Russian view of nature.  In the Russian cultural context, nature can be both bountiful and harsh and is regarded as so vast and powerful that no human could even hope to control it.  The Nelsons, therefore, are attempting the impossible.  Notably, in London's original story their ultimate implementation of Victorian law represents a small "conquest" of sorts over nature.  This very Anglo-American view casts nature as the victim of the human law that claims to be "civilizing" it.

By contrast, in Kuleshov's interpretation, their implementation of Victorian law collapses against the overwhelming will of nature, like a twig attempting to prevent the total collapse of a dilapidated building.  It is truly a narrative that the Russian or Ukrainian peasant living in the harsh and cruel Siberian wilderness could readily identify with, especially those who had any memory of being forced to live off the land as serfs.

Tragically, it was this deep-seated desire in Russian culture to control and "conquer" the seemingly unconquerable course of nature that most brutally expressed itself in Stalin's heavy-handed industrialization of the 1930s.  Its cost were the lives of millions of innocents and a legacy of environmental destruction and decay throughout the former USSR.

Perhaps not surprisingly, By the Law was enthusiastically received by the Soviet public at the time of its release.  Even less surprisingly, it was less-than enthusiastically received by Soviet authorities.  Given its apolitical character, poetic storytelling, moral complexity, and focus on individual characters, it is not difficult to see why.  However, perhaps most alarming for Soviet authorities was the film's depiction of nature as an unknowable, unpredictable, and ultimately unconquerable force.  This would only contradict and potentially throw into question Soviet efforts to reign in and change the course of nature for the benefit of the narod.

Though the film is currently not available online in full, it is available on DVD as part of the four-disc Landmarks of Early Soviet Cinema set with a new score by the acclaimed silent film composer Robert Israel.  Unfortunately, it appears to have been mastered from a VHS copy, not an actual film print.  Fortunately, Soviet film historian Dr. Ana Olenina of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, has recommended a much cleaner DVD version of the film that can be purchased here.