Where to begin with “Freaks Out,” a Nazisploitation fantasy caper with circus trappings and a tin-ear for taste. The puzzling thing about Italian director Gabriele Mainetti’s feature set in 1943 in German-occupied Rome is that, rather than embracing tastelessness a la John Waters, it guns for earnestness despite not having a thoughtful bone in its body.
Israel (Giorgio Tirabassi) is a ringmaster and father figure to a small troupe of circus performers – in the film’s vernacular: four sideshow freaks. These are a super-strong Wolfman (Emilio De Marchi ), an albino who can command insects, Cencio (Pietro Castellitto), a dwarf with magnetic powers, Mario (Giancarlo Martini), and the star of the show, a pretty young girl named Mathilde (Aurora Giovinazzo) who is electric. She cannot allow anyone to touch her lest she electrocutes them and wears red gloves as protection.
Meanwhile, six-fingered, ether-addicted, virtuoso-piano-playing Nazi, Franz (Franz Rogowski) runs his own legendary circus, conducting sadistic experiments on his performers on the side. In one early scene, he sledgehammers the skull of a man with gills in a rage over the man’s inability to breathe in a diving helmet full of water. Even by Third Reich standards, Franz is known as crazy. On the plus side, his dreams predict the future, and he awakens from drugged stupors to feverishly crayon prophecies onto the page. The film makes absurd, fourth-wall-breaking winks to the audience as his dreams about the future of Germany are supplemented by cameos from a PlayStation controller and an iPhone. In another nod to those watching, one of Franz’s “original” piano compositions is a melodic version of “Creep” by Radiohead.
After their circus is bombed to smithereens, Wolf, Cencio, and Mario head off to see if Franz will hire them. Mathilde refuses to go with them and instead searches for Israel, who is Jewish and has gone missing, a worrying combination in 1943. She joins forces with a group of forest-dwelling vigilantes called – brace for it – “The Crippled Devils.” Their leader keeps a tally of the Nazis he has killed and encourages Mathilde to use her special skill to fry a few herself. As in every superhero origin story, she is initially reluctant to use her as yet unmastered powers.
The film is so busy with subplots, side characters, and set pieces that there’s scarcely time to consider how it does or does not hang together. Striking images are consistent, conjuring a strange vaudevillian version of the Third Reich with a depiction of Nazis-as-cartoon-villains that harks back to “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Making light of the Nazis is always a bold swing – some hit and some miss – and while “Freaks Out” does not fall flat on its face, it’s not a clean connection. Harrison Ford’s Dr. Jones had the deadpan line: “Nazis, I hate those guys.” Here Hitler is described as: “that psycho asshole.” The difference between pained understatement and crassness is the difference between a pleasurable guffaw and an awkward titter.
De Marchi, Castellitto, Martini, and Giovinazzo give game performances, anchoring a hell of a lot of dubious material with their bonhomie. Mathilde, in her pigtails, is jokingly referred to as “Dorothy,” and the story by Mainetti and Nicola Guaglianone draws from “The Wizard of Oz” as the rag-tag gang of misfits help each other to survive and grow in the process. Their decision to make a film about “freaks” is superficial, seemingly conceived to enable images like a fully naked dwarf with a startlingly large dick spinning around on an Execution Wheel. A second reason to center such protagonists comes to light in tandem with Franz’s Dr. Mengele-esque experiments. The resurrection of one of The Holocaust’s monsters in service of this character motive is insultingly glib and reveals the film as not just Nazisploitation but also Disability-sploitation.
What now to say about Franz Rogowski, one of the gentlest actors to grace our screens in recent years. His work in Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life” and with Christian Petzold on “Transit” and “Undine” introduced us to a man capable of expressing the most tender parts of the human spirit. For “Freaks Out,” he sets fire to the sweetheart playbook to gnash his teeth as a mustache-twirling psychopath. It is bewitching, in the moment, to watch Rogowski leap and writhe, like an electrified ballet dancer, and the role serves as a suitable audition tape should he ever wish to play a villain in a “Paddington” sequel. But in the hot mess that is this film, it serves only to mar his record. [D+]