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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » By the Law (Po zakonu)
By the Law (Po zakonu)
Edition Filmmuseum // Unrated
List Price: €19.95 [Buy now and save at Edition-filmmuseum]
Review by John Sinnott | posted March 2, 2011 | E-mail the Author
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The Film:
 
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 directed 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 good 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 out to leave when one of their member, an Irishman named Michael Dennin (Vladimir Fogel), spots some shiny metal at the bottom of a stream:  Gold!   They've struck it rich and the group works night and day to get as much 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 the others have started dinner without him.  He's had all that he can stand and shoots and kills two of them before 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 woman, 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 one-time comrade while the winter howls outside the thin cabin walls.  Just how long can they go on keeping an eye on Michael?
 
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) but director Lev Kulesov uses the single set and some exterior scenes to his advantage.  He creates an atmosphere of danger and claustrophobia with the camera.  There's little dialog, there really doesn't need to be much said, but it's clear that Dennin will kill Edith and Hans if he gets a chance, and that 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 through their facial expressions.  Dennin is constantly angry and mad, while Hans has come to accept that they're stuck in the cabin for a long while and becomes rather calm and sedate after his initial attempt to beat the killer to death.  Edith, on the other hand, starts to crack under the strain of having to be so close to someone who wants to kill her.  It's the way these three handle their situation, and the way Kulesov portrays those reaction on the screen, that makes this an excellent early Russian film.
 
The DVD:

 
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 screens.
 
Audio:
 
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 action on screen.  When Fogel plays a home made flute and dances a jig at the beginning of the movie, the score is slow and 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 being pressed on a keyboard.  Ugh.  Not only is this nothing like the music that originally accompanied the film, it's not enjoyable either.   
 
Video:
 
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 deterioration in a couple of places but these are minor and never distract from the film.
 


Extras:
 
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 addition none the less.  There are some very good scenes in this 18 minute reel, and it also shows Khokhlova's wide action 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 decomposition present.
 


Final Thoughts:
 
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 tension and dread with a minimum of sets and actors.  Check it out, but turn down the sound while watching it.  Recommended.
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