I think this movie won Frightfest.
In an Italy of 1943, a travelling circus delights people with its wonder and mystery. A magician, a dog-faced man, an electric girl and a man who commands the insects and wee beasties display their talents to a mesmerised crowd. Theirs is an age of innocence and wonder. And it is coming to an end.
The Nazis occupy Italy, and everyone different is being rounded up and shipped off to the death camps. While trying to help his family of performers escape, the magician, Israel, is caught and put with other Jews on a transport. Mathilde sets out to rescue him, with more than a little help on the way.
You know what I loved most about this film? It was a world. Most films, even fantasy films, are made around their main character, and the world they inhabit only serves their story. But Freaks Out builds a world where I feel like you could literally follow any side character’s story and still have a movie. And it’s unusual to be able to convey that sense in something that’s not a TV show or a multi-film franchise.
The villain of the piece is Franz, the ringmaster of the Nazi circus in Berlin, who is a six-fingered pianist, clairvoyant, ether addict, and psychopath. There they showcase the best in Aryan entertainment, and any difference is made to serve the ends of the Nazi ideology. Those whose difference doesn’t, are disposed of.
And when I say Franz is clairvoyant, I don’t mean, “You will soon be taking a trip” clairvoyant. I mean he sees our future exactly, and tries to interpret its meaning through a 1940s perspective. He keeps sketching these strange light-up musical rectangles with a partially eaten apple on the back. Did I mention the film’s hilarious? There’s so much to talk about in this film, I’m only now getting round to telling you it’s hilarious. Franz is known for his huge repertoire of new songs, a seemingly prolific songwriter. The first time you see him at the piano, he sits down and plays Creep by Radiohead.
Franz is superbly played by Franz Rogowski, from Great Freedom. He is just amazing. What a talent. I need to see more of his films. In Freaks Out, he plays a genuinely horrible person, a Nazi, a gleeful murderer, a total fanatic, and yet, Rogowski makes you feel genuinely sorry for him at times. You actually sympathise with this guy who’s been driven half-mad by his visions, who’s doomed to be, in his own words, “the Cassandra of the Third Reich”. He’s evil, and he’s using his visions to try to avert the defeat of the Nazis, there couldn’t be anything more heinous. Yet you feel for him when he is dismissed and humiliated, when he struggles to get his brother’s respect, and he craves the love of his girlfriend. To the end, he mixes cruelty, comedy and tragedy.
Anyway, he is searching for four freaks, whose silhouettes he has seen in visions, and who he is convinced have the ability to prevent the demise of the Third Reich. Unfortunately it seems to be a prophecy of Mathilde and her crew.
While Mathilde sets off to rescue Israel, the others, left destitute by the bombing of their tent, go to try-outs for the Nazi circus. They’ve heard great things of Franz’s talent, and are unaware he’s a maniac. This is a hilarious scene with bug boy Cencio making beetles form a swastika on the floor.
Mathilde briefly teams up with a group of anti-fascist freedom fighters made from the ranks of injured soldiers. They are all amputees, in one form or another, lead by a cantankerous but good man with a hunchback. They have a camp in the woods where they sculpt their own prostheses and make their own weapons, like the leader’s machinegun-crutch. Like Mathilde’s band, they too are a family. You see them having a kick-about, hitting the ball with their hands, head or crutches, whatever they have. It reminded me of Dix’s painting The Skat Players, and made me wonder if it was a direct reference.
Anyway, they are able to help Mathilde briefly speak to Israel on his transport, where he warns her to save the others from Franz and let her know where his transport will be going, before the Nazis whisk him away. So Mathilde must save her friends, face off against Franz, and rescue Israel.
Whoof! I know that sounds like a lot but this film is packed. When I saw it was 2 and a half hours, I was a little worried, as I like my films closer to 90 minutes, and feel too often these days films try to reach the Marvel-set 3 hour mark for no other reason than prestige. I worried Freaks Out would feel like a good hour could be cut from its runtime. But it flies in! You’ll not even notice the time, much less be bored.
And yet it manages not to overload you, it is dense, but with a clear plot. Rescue friends is its central direction, and it follows it throughout. So well told, it is a feast.
It’s got its own style as well, reminding me a little of Hellboy, but also Stardust (the novel, not the film, which didn’t work as well). There’s a particular aesthetic and an amazing attention to detail. Like the confetti in the Nazi circus all being little swastikas. And Franz’s study being full of anachronisms, like his Kappa tracksuit with gold Nazi insignia.
I cannot recommend this film enough. It’s about the forces of difference against the forces of conformity. It’s action packed, hilarious, romantic, tragic, and hopeful. It made the whole room at Frightfest cheer. It’s just the best. Go see.