By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | April 25, 2023 |
By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | April 25, 2023 |
Did you ever watch X-Men and wish it had more Nazis? Did you love The Shape of Water but wish it had more Nazis? Did you experience the majesty of Roberto Rossellini’s neo-realist masterpieces set during the Second World War and wish it had more circus performers and maniacal Nazi officers playing Radiohead covers on the piano? Then boy do I have a movie for you!
Originally titled Freaks Out in its native Italy, Freaks Vs. the Reich arrives on American shores with a snappier, more Sharknado-esque title. This suggests schlockier aims for its English-language demographics than initially intended (this premiered in-competition at the Venice Film Festival.) Of course, you can’t blame them for trying. Just read that synopsis.
The freaks of the title are a quartet of circus performers working in a rundown traveling circus headed by the Jewish magician Israel: Cencio is an albino boy who can control insects; Mario is a clown with a magnetic body; Fulvio is covered in hair from head to toe and possesses immense strength; and Matilde is an acrobat with electric powers that mean she can never touch another human lest she kill them. We are introduced to their whimsical abilities in the striking opening scene, where the beautiful possibilities they suggest are brought to a halt when the Nazis bomb Rome and leave behind a trail of mutilated bodies. Israel wants them to flee to America, but when he disappears, leaving the rest to wonder if he abandoned them, three of them head to the Berlin Zircus. This Nazi spectacle is run by Franz, a six-fingered maniacal pianist who has visions of the future and is desperate to stave off the seeming inevitability of Hitler’s suicide. He believes that a group of superhumans can help the Germans win the war and gain him the respect he deserves.
Freaks Vs. the Reich has lofty ambitions, a desire to thread the needle between earnest fable, pulpy comic book movie, and brutal war drama. Bombed-out Italian villages are contrasted with the hysterical drama of a Nazi circus that verges on parody. There’s a childlike quality to some of it but that’s then immediately refuted when you see doggy-style f**king and people getting their heads bashed in. Oh, and a scene where a naked guy is stuck to a metal wheel so his d**k does a full 360 turn. Matilde is the wide-eyed innocent of the group, the youngest of the performers and the one whose powers have left her terrified of human connection. Her naivety is intended to be a contrast to the uncouth cynicism of her make-shift family, although it soon grates, especially when the rest of the film provides such a tonal dissonance to her earnestness.
The freaks are the obvious heart of the film but the scene stealer is Franz himself. Played by Franz Rogowski, one of the most interesting actors working today, he’s a moonwalking, ether-huffing psychic for whom the phrase ‘tone it down a little, sweetie’ is meaningless. He knows he’s on the losing side but is desperate to do anything to win, although his motivations seem less rooted in Nazism than being a self-loathing loser who just wants people, particularly his older brother, to like him. Rogowski is an actor of immense sensitivity, one who is at his best when he’s exploring the moments of silence that reveal more about a character than any soliloquy could. So, it’s certainly a change to see him play a man whose default mode is deluded bellowing. He’s clearly having a ball, playing the sort of villain that wouldn’t look out of place in a He-Man cartoon. Yet the rest of the film struggles to keep up with this energy. Does it want to be bad-taste pulp? A superhero parable (at one point, Franz refers to the group as his ‘Fantastic 4’)? A whimsical fairy-tale? It’s not impossible to be all three yet the jarring contrasts leave the viewer more confused than anything else.
(Image via VMI Releasing)
While there are enjoyable set-pieces here, like that opening scene and an attack on a train full of Nazis, there’s little in the way of true character. Matilde’s story is something of a coming-of-age narrative but there’s no real sense of development for her, and the little the other performers gets feels unsatisfying. It’s Franz who comes closest to a tangible arc, with his hatred over being side-lined from the true war effort fuelling his quest, yet even that is given little room to breathe in-between the aesthetic focus. Really, more attention is given to making everything look ‘cool’, which is kind of a problem when you’re talking about Nazis. Sure, the circus sets are impressive and there is something weirdly fascinating about a casual Reich tracksuit, but what’s it in service of? It’s clearly taking inspiration from the likes of Guillermo del Toro, who knows his sources inside out, but Guillermo’s success lies in how he never sacrifices emotion for the sake of a good visual. That’s not the case here.
As enjoyable as Freaks Vs. the Reich often is - and it’s hard to deny the allure of watching Nazis get demolished by circus performers - it lacks the core of its inspirations, and you just don’t care about these characters as much as you should. You wonder how seriously you’re supposed to take it when you’re watching a Nazi play ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ on the piano, but then you see a train full of Jewish people going to you-know-where and your stomach can’t help but sink. The added glob of sentimentality only further sours the experience. One almost wishes that the film was as bad-taste as its new title, for at least that would offer a kind of consistency it’s lacking in its current form. Still, at least you’ve got Rogowski tearing up the scenery as though his life depends on it.
Freaks Vs. the Reich simultaneously premieres theatrically in North America and on VOD on April 28.