The 1926 Russian film By
the Law (Po zakonu) is a minimalist, tense, and
claustrophobic film that works wonderfully.
Based on a story by Jack London, of all people, this movie was
by Lev Kulesov wonderfully. With a very
limited budget he was able to bring the atmosphere of London's story
to the screen in a very real
and personal way. Available on DVD for
the first time from Filmmuseum, the film is lovingly restored and looks
as it ever has.
Set in the days of the Alaskan Gold Rush, five people set
out for the Yukon
and stake a claim, hoping to strike it rich.
The mine doesn't work as they hoped it would and the group sets
leave when one of their member, an Irishman named Michael Dennin
Fogel), spots some shiny metal at the bottom of a stream:
They've struck it rich and the group works night and day to get
of the precious metal as they can, working right through the winter.
Dennin feels slighted however. It was he
who found the gold when the others
were ready to give up yet they make him do menial chores:
washing clothes, fetching water, and the
like. When he's not looking the others
steal his food and generally mistreat him.
One day Dennin enters the group's small cabin and discovers that
others have started dinner without him.
He's had all that he can stand and shoots and kills two of them
Edith (Aleksandra Khokhlova) wrestles the gun away from him. Edith's husband Hans (Sergei Komarov) wants
to kill Michael for the murders he's committed but Edith, a pious
insists that they have to treat him "by the law."
They tie him up but Dennin isn't satisfied with what he's
done and promises to kill Edith and Hans too.
The couple takes turns staying awake, constantly watching their
comrade while the winter howls outside the thin cabin walls. Just how long can they go on keeping an eye
This film was made on a very low budget (the liner notes say
that it was the cheapest Russian film of the time, and possibly ever)
director Lev Kulesov uses the single set and some exterior scenes to
advantage. He creates an atmosphere of
danger and claustrophobia with the camera.
There's little dialog, there really doesn't need to be much
it's clear that Dennin will kill Edith and Hans if he gets a chance,
he's willing to create his own opportunity.
One of the things that works well in this movie is the way
the personalities of the three main characters is revealed largely
their facial expressions. Dennin is
constantly angry and mad, while Hans has come to accept that they're
the cabin for a long while and becomes rather calm and sedate after his
attempt to beat the killer to death.
Edith, on the other hand, starts to crack under the strain of
be so close to someone who wants to kill her.
It's the way these three handle their situation, and the way
portrays those reaction on the screen, that makes this an excellent
This film comes on a single PAL DVD that is not region
coded. Though any player will read the
disc, buyers should be sure that they can play PAL video on their
Unfortunately, the score commissioned for this release is
absolutely dreadful. While the audio
quality of the stereo mix is fine, music itself is wretched. It's a synthesizer score by Franz Reisecker
mainly consists of a slow, plodding electronic drone.
That's not bad, in and of itself, that
certainly would fit the mood of the film, but it never changes with the
on screen. When Fogel plays a home made
flute and dances a jig at the beginning of the movie, the score is slow
ominous which doesn't go along with the music.
It's not very musical either. The
audio isn't melodic and there is no beat at all, just sustained chords
pressed on a keyboard. Ugh.
Not only is this nothing like the music that
originally accompanied the film, it's not enjoyable either.
Happily, the image is much, much more pleasing than the
score. The film has been nicely restored
and it looks great for a feature this old.
The contrast is excellent and the detail is superb.
There is some damage to the print, a few
scratches and spots, and there is a little evidence of film stock
in a couple of places but these are minor and never distract from the
This disc also comes with the fourth reel (the only one
still in existence) from the movie Your
Acquaintance (Vasa znakomaja)
also staring Aleksandra Khokhlova. It's
only a fragment from the middle of a movie but it's an interesting
none the less. There are some very good
scenes in this 18 minute reel, and it also shows Khokhlova's wide
range. Her role here is nothing like
that in By the Law. It's
too bad that the rest of the film
doesn't survive. As it is, this reel was
rescued just in time as there are some significant patches of
This is a great film, marred only by one of the worst scores
I've ever heard for a silent film. Kulesov's
atmospheric film still works exceedingly well, creating a feeling of
and dread with a minimum of sets and actors.
Check it out, but turn down the sound while watching it. Recommended.