I’m sitting here writing and I am riding the proverbial fence of being at a loss for words and having entirely too much to say.
I wasn’t expecting much going into “Freaks Vs. The Reich. The title itself was eye-catching but how many nazi movies will viewers be able to watch before they all become one fascist blur of blood, guts, and glory? I’m not sure. But this movie has earned a spot in my picky movie-loving heart forever.
Aside from winning 34 awards and being nominated for 21, Director Gabriele Mainetti has produced nothing short of a love letter to cinema fans, critics, casual at-home watchers, and history buffs alike.
We’re welcomed into the story by smog, dim lighting, and an old fellow eager to show us something magnificent, wasting nearly no time we are soon watching the circus just like an audience member attending the show. The eclectic four attractions with their distinct abilities and personalities pile into our minds one by one. It begins with Cencio, a young man with the ability to control insects warming up the crowd with his display of heart with lightning bugs only to be followed by Mario, a magnetic man with dwarfism and humor reminiscent of “The Three Stooges”. The beastly man yet no less suave, Fulvio, roars to life freeing himself from a cage with super strength before the electric gymnast shocks viewers with her ability to generate electricity with her body. The “Eclectic Four” in an age of war, unfair labor, and the unlawful treatment of circus performers were free as birds yet they chose to stay and live amongst each other and their father figure “Israel.” With the Third Reich on their heels and the war quite literally raging around them the camaraderie is not quite enough. Israel is determined to extend their careers and lives as long as he can by getting papers for America, with the group separated from their stable unit and eventually each other as Nazi soldiers mercilessly kill & take civilians the movie tells a tale of more than freaks and swastikas.
This film features romance, betrayal, loss, unlikely heroes, plenty of bees, and the retelling of the harsh reality of a history that was not so long ago. Mainetti kept historical events in focus as the story splits into two parts that balance themselves together as one as we follow the Four through their journey with an active retelling of the harsh realities that occurred during Adolf Bitchler’s reign. The mistreatment of disabled and disfigured individuals, Jewish families being torn apart, and the immoral experimentations & exploitations. As a Jewish woman and human being with a compassionate heart watching four different but very similar people come into their own and develop faith in themselves as their world falls to ash and the palatable fear and confusion in the Jewish men, women, and children’s eyes, as they were on their way to camps, was enough to take the wind from the sky and earn more than a few tears from me.
I ultimately carried no empathy for our main antagonist, Herr Franz; the carnivorous carnie, piano playing failure of a Nazi soldier. His inability to serve in Bitchler’s army due to his extra fingers on each hand was what brought him to such madness. Seeking out “freaks” with powers and unusual appearances & limb differences like himself as a gift to Hitler to prepare a supernatural army was one of the most fucked up yet brilliantly written backstories for a villain I have seen in a while. Our inner demons are often greater than our enemies and this is one hell of an example. The Eclectic four have the extraordinary dishonor of meeting Herr Franz at Zirkus Berlin, mistaking his carnival as an opportunity rather than a threat. The real rat race doesn’t even begin until after Matilde is made aware of Israel’s capture by the Nazis and the danger of Herr Franz which she hurries to tell the others. All four of them are reunited by the woeful means of being held hostage and forced to perform for one of Zirkus Berlin’s biggest performances & Herr Franz’s debut of his “big war-saving effort”. The hair-brained nazi, Franz, unsatisfied with his performances out turn throws The Eclectic Four into a chambered oven as they band together to breathe & free themselves, another tactful reminder from Mainetti that this was the reality for 6 million people that were not lucky enough to escape or evade the Nazi foot soldiers. Yet the fire that burns so deep and bright inside our electric girl, nothing short of a star; Matilde, is symbol enough that our light will never fade and fascism will never win. We will continue to push through impenetrable iron bars like Fulvio, live cheerfully and cling magnetically to life like Mario, cherish the small things like Cencio, and care for one another no matter our differences like Israel.
The only thing better in this film than the Nazi deaths was the perseverance and friendship between four people who will do anything to save someone they love and the unlikely alliances they make on the way.
Gracie Howell – SinfulCelluloid