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On DVD: “4,” Lubitsch in Berlin

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: “4,” Red Envelope/Genius]

Chances are, you never got a chance to see first-timer Ilya Khrjanovsky’s film “4” when it was ever so briefly, ever so tentatively “released” earlier this year in a handful of cities for a single week, and to a largely dumbfounded critical community. It’s difficult to blame the tabloid reviewers for being clueless — this is a raging, unsettling, rule-incinerating monster of a movie, treating the rules of orthodox narrative like toilet paper and engaging in irreverent structuralist hijinks that’d be hilarious if in fact the film wasn’t chilling to the bone. The screenplay is by notorious avant-garde novelist Vladimir Sorokin, who has been attacked and censored in Russia by neo-nationalist groups looking to suppress “dangerous” culture. Even “dangerous” isn’t too strong a word for “4,” which begins with the static shot of a nightened street where four very tense dogs are sitting, when from outside of the frame, giant hydraulic demolition hammers — four of them — attack the asphalt and send the dogs fleeing. The dogs, in fact, never stop wandering for the rest of the film.

But then we cut to an after-hours bar in which a hooker, a meat wholesaler and a skinhead piano tuner meet (the film does have the structure of a prolonged joke) and proceed to spin fabulous lies to each other; one extraordinary thread involves cloning. But who’s lying? At home, the hooker gets a cryptic message and embarks for the post-Soviet frontier, back to a prehistoric village where dolls are made of chewed bread, pagan burial chaos still reigns and only two of the hooker’s three identical sisters are still alive.

And so friggin’ on. Only 30 during filming, Khrjanovsky is fearless in his devotion to ridiculous ambiguity, possibly meaningless metaphor and long, breath-holding takes. However berserk and bedeviling it might seem on first viewing, “4” has a way of implanting itself in your reptile brain and haunting your daydreams for months afterward. I’ll go out on another limb: if you don’t face up to the film’s quadripartite patterns, betraying subnarratives, drunken techno-dread and derelict Russian wastelands, you have little idea what world cinema is up to lately.

Flashback to Weimar Republic-era Germany, where everyone was nursing the monumental losing-side wounds of WWI and soused with joy over its ending, and where Ernst Lubitsch, future Hollywood studio manager and master-director of American screwball comedies, strode from German theater into the light of world cinema. The new Kino set “Lubitsch in Berlin” contains five films on four discs, each as beautifully designed and wittily executed as the next. This is what comedy looked like during the era of German Expressionism — positively Burtonesque (split the difference between “Beetlejuice” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), satiric of Art Deco and teeming with startling compositions, none of which ever impedes on the yucks. The famous Lubitsch “touch” hits you in the eye in the best films, which are acted with a distinctly unsilent eloquence, and which may be the funniest silent movies made anywhere without a central clown-star to carry them.

“The Oyster Princess” (1919) — a year before “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” — and “The Wildcat” (1921) are masterful home runs, each set in a slightly off Ruritanian nowhere and each bristling with screwball nuance and sex-farce outrageousness. (Lubitsch always made movies for grown-ups.) The former, a rip on both nouveau riche Americans and Old World royalty, features what must be the greatest musical-comedy number in the history of silents. The latter is set in a militaristically absurd frontier fort beset by a girl-magnet playboy lieutenant (the impossibly deft Paul Heidemann) and a marauding band of bandits led by a wild-haired Pola Negri. “I Don’t Want to be a Man” (1920) is a contemporary cross-dresser in which a pissed-off teen (Ossi Oswalda, zaftig queen of Weimar burlesque) puts on a tux and experiences the world as a man. The remaining two films, both made in 1920, are ostensibly serious, though epic and silk-smooth: “Sumurun” is an Arabian-harem dramedy in which Negri plays a renegade sex slave and Expressionist icon Paul Wegener is the seedy old sheikh, while “Anna Boleyn” is a straight-out, big-budget historic tragedy that gives Emil Jannings the destiny-designated opportunity to portray Henry VIII. They may have been the most fecund two-plus years of his career, but in 1922, Lubitsch went to California, and never looked back.

“4” (Red Envelope/Genius) will be available on DVD on December 12th; “Lubitsch in Berlin” (Kino) became available on DVD on December 5th.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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