See here. The scene is set; turn-of-the-century Yukon, prospectors with feverish dreams, restless lives clawing at the edges of the known world. What could they humanly discover where no one goes?
The Irish worker hastens back to the campfire to break the good news to his company, everyone rejoices at the prospect of gold and begin dancing; except no one with him, he is left alone, dancing awkwardly a little out of way while tapping his empty food plate - the empty plate, next to the larger where dirt is sifted for gold nuggets. A little further, his dog, excited at the noise and merrymaking, stands at hind legs and eagerly performs his learned trick. How brilliantly Kuleshov conducts all these images, sustains in them each other's metaphor.
This is the very thing. There are many filmmakers who can paint a beautiful sunset or turn story-telling beats with some urgency or suspense, or even give us an intelligent metaphor about these things. But so few can draw a meaningful image that connects itself with what is behind- and gives rise to it; so few who can brilliantly invent, picture the notions that will restore the world from our narrow perspective into its original dimensions.
So, there is this solitary hut in the middle of the blasted, windswept tundra. Nights flutter with rain. Inside is humanity entire; this is how wide Kuleshov sees. The man, the worker who was wronged and wronged back twice harder, the couple who had no time to spare him from their cruelty but will spend so much solemn, dutiful time and effort to bury their dead in the wind and rain. They are both guilty, both probably never having meant to, and they're all waiting for the thaw, the law to come and settle scores.
This is not agitprop like was commissioned from Kuleshov's pupils, Eisenstein and Pudovkin. The worker is not merely the prole, exploited but brave with adversity, his employees are not just the faceless cut-outs of corrupting evil. The figures are rich with ambivalence, they have actual faces equally damned and damnable.
Tensions simmer as they grow paranoid together in the small hut, minds become unhinged. There are some pretty unforgettable images of this, faces and bodies locked in ghastly grimace as though something contorts from inside the soul. Baleful eyes. Again how Kuleshov conducts his metaphors though; outside is constantly pouring hard, and begins to seep inside with the madness.
And then the ice begins to break; these are some of the most breath-taking images in film, certainly the most erudite in silent cinema, exactly because of the cycles they insinuate. It is the mind shattering with the surface of the earth, the universe above. So the three of them are basically growing mad while the world is torn asunder beneath their feet; except it's more than that, it's washed away implying a floating that renews. The overall notion framed in images is so powerful, I had to hold my breath a little as it happened.
The law, or Law equally as good, they've been waiting for never comes of course. So they arbite to decide matters themselves, embodying the law in the absence of it with Bible at hand and a poster of Queen Victoria on the ramshackle wall. This is what is so valiant about the human effort in general, yet also equally misguided. It falls on us - and us alone - to devise the order that will nurture and sustain us.
Oh, the couple devise their order as best they know, fair or not. But the maddening vision is not over, and the end is a bit of a stunner.
If you seek this out, try for the restored FilmMuseum version. It comes with amazing ambient music by Austrian composer Franz Reisecker; sparse techno beats like Plastikman, now dissolving with static hum. It's great stuff.