Tuesday, June 18, 2019 at 7pm
Lev Kuleshov's By the Law

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

By the Law, Lev Kuleshov, 1926, 16mm, 78 mins

Jay Leyda on By the Law

Kuleshov and his literary advisor, Viktor Shklovsky, sought a subject that would offer an opportunity for a serious experiment but would require a minimum of expense. It had to be done cheaply and quickly—with few actors, few sets, and no sumptuous costumes. A cast of three characters offered the cheapest dramatic possibilities, but there had to be some natural reason for isolating the three: they had to be in the desert, or snow-bound, or flood-bound, making the unsalaried elements play roles. They chose Jack London's grim Alaskan story "The Unexpected," in which three people, joined by murder, are isolated from civilization by winter storms and spring floods. The Alaskan atmosphere was understandably of less importance to Kuleshov than the essential drama of Jack London's story. Although the finished film shows faithful respect for the idea of London, its visualization seems to us peculiarly Russian. Incidentally, Shklovsky has told how he drew one of the added episodes—the birthday party—from a scene of Dostoyevsky. The writing team finished the adaptation and shooting script in one night and submitted it to the studio, which rejected its subject and its proposed heroine, Alexandra Khokhlova, as "not attractive enough." These obstacles were overcome by placing the production in the category of an "experiment," on a restricted budget. By the Law was filmed precisely according to the scenario with only one omission: at the start an Indian was to have been shown executed for some infringement of the law, to show rigid adherence to the law.

Only one interior set was built, in the courtyard of the studio. Three actors, Khokhlova, Komarov, and Fogel, were put on salary; the other two smaller roles were filled by Galadzhev and Podobed, former members of the Workshop, who helped out by taking time off from their regular jobs. As the studio had assigned Alexander Levitsky to photograph another film, he supervised a younger cameraman, Konstantin Kuznetsov. Evenings were used for rehearsals of the action and camera set-ups for the next morning's shooting, a great economy of time and raw film. By the Law is still the least expensive feature film ever produced in Russia.

When released (December 2, 1926) and exported, the studio was amazed at its reception by critical opinion abroad. The absence of all orthodox film devices (no hero, no villain, no variety of locale, no parallel action, etc.) surprised and attracted advance-guard filmgoers as much as the early Thomas Ince-William Hart films had excited perceptive Parisians. Its physiological tension was unique on European screens. A record of its unusual effect is provided by H.D.'s review in Close Up (May 1928), communicating the sensations of catalepsy and hysteria she experienced on seeing it in a little Lausanne cinema. It is interesting that no effort was made to analyze the experience or understand the technique that produced it, although its influence on foreign filmmaking can perhaps be detected in Carl Dreyer's Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928).

Tretyakov comes close to the means by which the film's intensity was achieved: "By the Law was worked out in the spirit of an algebraic formula, seeking to obtain the maximum of fact with a minimum of effort." The mathematical precision of every gesture and movement contributes to the total effect of each character and episode. Kuleshov taught his workshop that the hands, arms and legs are the most expressive part of the film actor’s body, and we can observe that their movement create as much of the film's tension as does the facial expression. The same intensity of "performance" by Khokhlova and Fogel that amazed critics only proved how correct was Kuleshov’s avoidance of "performance." Even Shklovsky, who had worked in all stages of the film's preparation, confessed, "Kuleshov made more out of the film than I expected." To paraphrase Edmund Wilson's estimate of Turgenev, Kuleshov in one film had perfected "the modern art of implying social criticism through a narrative that is presented objectively, organized economically, and beautifully polished in style."

Tickets - $8, available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 6:30pm.