By Michael Atkinson
[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.