This intense drama was directed by Lev Kuleshov from the short story “The Unexpected” by Jack London.
In a remote part of the Yukon, a frustrated group of miners suddenly discover that their gold mine is paying off. But Michael Dennin (Vladimir Fogel) is not a stakeholder in the mining operation and soon becomes envious of the others. He suddenly murders two of the miners and the remaining two, Swede Hans Nelson (Sergei Komarov) and Edith Nelson (Aleksandra Khokhlova) his English wife, must stop Dennin by beating him into unconsciousness. At the climax of the struggle, Edith must stop her husband from murdering the murderer. She insists that they must let the law handle him.
Dennin is bound by rope and held at gunpoint. Time and again the woman must stand between the two men, who would kill each other if they could. The melting winter ice and rising waters of the river must retreat before they can leave for civilization and the law.
Edith develops a fearful empathy for Dennin, while her husband remains vengeful. The stress of the isolation on the ongoing situation takes its toll on Edith and Hans, and he argues the merits of an instant justice upon the murderer. She reluctantly agrees, but insists that they carry out a judgment hearing following the rules of British law as Dennin is an Irishman and a subject of Queen Victoria.
The would-be judges are also the would-be jury who become, in turn, the would-be executioners, sentencing Dennin to death by hanging. Edith’s empathy has been swept away by a lapse of resolve and the madness of religion and self-justification. The horrifying execution is, for the couple, followed by the horrific appearance of Dennin’s ghost.
The Soviet message of Western values gone awry will not be lost upon the viewer, with the significant repeated intercutting of the queen’s portrait and the surreal denouement of Edith’s upraised bible and robot-like leading of Dennin to his final reckoning. Eventually, all Westerners are corrupted by gold, by religion and by their selfish sense of rightiousness.
Kuleshov’s direction of the spare production is notable. Reputedly filmed for a miniscule cost, the film nonetheless poses a number of striking images that are carefully composed for audiences to learn something of the character’s nature or the status of the situation, all of which are visually bold and worth savoring. The tableaux at the gallows tree is memorable for its starkness and impressionistic significance. Kuleshov’s prolonged burial sequence builds to a palpable suspense as Dennin attempts to free himself while the couple are struggling with dead bodies amid a raging storm.
The elements of nature play a significant part in the stylistic telling of the tale. The wind and the rain beat angrily upon the burial effort. Dennin starts a defiant fire within the cabin, and the candles of the birthday cake foretell the fires of the Nelson’s perdition. Water from the melting river surrounds and invades the isolated cabin like a deadening shroud, and the return of the earth signals the moment for Dennin’s death.
Fogel’s fascinating face punctuates this intense film, but Khokhlova’s distressing creepiness (with backlit flyaway hair and Olive Oyl thinness) and her acting performance (seemingly restricted to bug-eyed mugging) may evoke some cynical laughter from modern viewers. — Carl Bennett
2010 DVD edition
Po zakonu [By the Law] (1926), black & white, 75 minutes, not rated,
with Vasa znakomaja (1927) [fragment], black & white, 18 minutes, not rated.
Österreichsches Filmmuseum, distributed by Edition Filmmuseum, 63, UPC/EAN 4-260100-33063-6.
Windowboxed 4:3 PAL, one single-sided, dual-layered DVD disc, Region 0, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound, Russian language intertitles, optional German, English and French language subtitles, no chapter stops, standard DVD keepcase, €29,95.
DVD release date: December 2010.
Country of origin: Germany
This edition of Po zakonu [By the Law] has been produced by the Austrian Filmmuseum from a very-good 35mm preservation print. The windowboxed standard-definition video transfer accurately reproduces the source print which is, at times, full of deep shadows and choking blacks in the middle-to-dark tones. Portions of the surviving footage are marked with momentary print damage and flaws, but the bulk of the film is relatively clear of defect other than its moderate to pronounced speckling.
The film is presented with a music score composed and performed on synthesizers by Franz Reisecker. The music may be, for conservative viewers, too futuristic in arrangement and execution given that it accompanies an arctic drama. Outside the context of the film presentation, we like the music for its experimental aural texturalism as a standalone electronic music recording. That crackling isn’t your speaker malfunctioning, it’s just a sign of artistic license.
The disc’s supplemental material presents the battered and decomposing 35mm footage from Vasa znakomaja (1927), Kuleshov’s feature-length drama (which is presented without musical accompaniment). While there is little sense of the overall plot of the film, the surviving footage is historically valuable for its brief scenes of everyday life in an unidentified Soviet city of the 1920s.
This is our recommended home video edition of By the Law, but . . . North American collectors will need a PAL DVD player capable of outputting an NTSC-compatible signal to view this edition.
Landmarks of Early Soviet Film (1924-1930), black & white, 595 minutes total, not rated,
including By the Law (1926), black & white, 80 minutes, not rated.
Flicker Alley, FA0022, UPC 6-17311-67639-0.
Windowboxed 4:3 NTSC, four single-sided, dual-layered DVD discs, Region 0, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound, Russian language intertitles, English language subtitles, 16 chapter stops, four slimline DVD keepcases with booklet in cardboard slipcase, $69.99.
DVD release date: 20 September 2011.
Country of origin: USA
This edition of By the Law looks OK, with good 35mm print materials utilized for the older analog video transfer. However, the 1997 windowboxed transfer shows its age with its high contrast of deep shadows and highlights that are blasted out to a featureless white. The presentation could have benefitted from an updated video transfer.
The film is accompanied by the 1997 piano film score arranged and performed by Robert Israel.
To be honest, we might only recommend this edition for North American collectors with NTSC DVD players that are not capable of playing the European PAL edition noted above.
USA: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0NTSC DVD edition from Amazon.com. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.
2007 DVD edition
By the Law (1926), black & white, 75 minutes, not rated.
Grapevine Video, no catalog number, UPC 8-42614-10252-3.
Full-frame 4:3 NTSC, one single-sided, single-layered DVD-R disc, Region 0, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, 7 chapter stops, standard DVD keepcase, $16.95 (reduced to $14.95).
DVD release date: 2007.
Country of origin: USA
This edition has been mastered from a dark 16mm reduction print that is not unlike the source print of the Edition Filmmuseum disc noted above, that is, shadowy in its middle-to-darker tones, rendering a dark plugged-up picture. The reduction print does not hold some of the darker middle graytones nor the picture details of the 35mm print above, but is not significantly worse than the quality of the surviving material.
The film is accompanied by a music score compiled from preexisting recordings.
While we recommend the PAL edition noted above, this is currently the only known NTSC DVD home video edition of By the Law available.
USA: Click the logomark to purchase this Region 0NTSC DVD-R edition from Amazon.com. Your purchase supports the Silent Era website.