Back in those days, comic books really were more unique flights of fancy than what I’ve seen today. There wasn’t as much focus on, say, defining the science behind making some of those stories work – I do think today’s audience has kinda/sorta upped the ante on knowing so much about how things function that it occasionally strips the fun out of modern adventures – and readers really were looking more for escape from the daily grind. Then, the 1980’s came, and serious tones and ideas truly overtook the graphic literary landscape. Superheroes were suddenly facing things like nuclear Armageddon, universe-altering mythologies, and even – ahem – old age. This isn’t to say reading became, well, less fun. Rather, it’s meant to just point out that the industry grew up a bit; and readers were forced to adapt whether they liked these issues or not.
Generally speaking, this evolution worked. Comic books were no longer thought of juvenile Fantasies playing out of in pictures painted on cheap paper. These were epics. These were larger-than-life yarns that, maybe, Hemingway and Faulkner and Shakespeare might’ve come up with had they had both the technology, time, and talent to compose. Naturally, such an elevation in importance caught the attention of Hollywood – of all places – and 1989’s Batman definitely launched a trend – for better or for worse – that sought to give some artistic credibility (and box office glory) to these heroes of old.
Well, here we are, decades after that new beginning, and the traditional comic book theatrical adaptation – by all financial accounts – has started waning considerable. The Marvel Cinematic Universe – once thought to be the crown jewel of modern-day Superhero storytelling – has kinda/sorta lost its mojo, both critically and profitably. Though these films still seem to fill the seats for a weekend or two, they just aren’t performing with the same kind of long-term results of their predecessors; and no one seems to have the answers as to precisely why they’ve fallen out of favor. If you ask me personally, then I might be able to rattle off a variable or two or three (maybe four), but at the end of the day (or discussion) that’s only one man’s opinion.
Instead, might I suggest readers turn their attention elsewhere?
Oh, if you like Superheroes, then Freaks Vs. The Reich (2021) is certainly close enough to that mark to whet your whistle. In fact, the picture feels very much like an authentic origins story, though it doesn’t go into measured detail about where or when these – ahem – powerful mutants got their start. Still, what it does do is bring them together and put them on their own Avengers-style mission vastly more personal and appreciably darker than anything Marvel or DC have ever tried … and it just might make you yearn for more adventures outside of the usual Hollywood format.
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“Rome, 1943: Matilde, Cencio, Fulvio, and Mario are the main attractions of the ‘Mezza Piotta Circus’ run by Israel, meanwhile someone starts looking for the four freaks with a plan that could change the fate of the whole world.”
1981’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark (Paramount Pictures) was one of films from the great 80’s that introduced the idea of the Third Reich’s obsession with fringe science to pop culture. While there were other works that followed in that same vein, Raiders – under Steven Spielberg’s direction – truly set the bar high, really only leaving scant leg room for imitators to latch onto that key premise – about Fascists in search of science or magic to rule the world – and to attempt something a bit different with it.
2021’s Freaks Vs. The Reich (aka Freaks Out) isn’t so much a successor to that fateful idea as it is maybe one of the first foreign releases I’ve stumbled across to pick up the baton and run with it, although in a markedly different direction. Here, the Nazis aren’t so much infatuated with some mysterious bauble to change their fate, but one man – Franz (played by Franz Rogowski) – who is a bit of a mutant himself rather zealously commits himself to finding ‘freaks’ with ‘powers’ who might alter the dark future he’s been suffering from with his own abilities. You see, Franz’s dreams have shown him that Hitler will fall, the West will emerge victorious, and society will make vast strides without Germany at the forefront; and that’s a tomorrow he simply can’t allow.
Using the Zirkus Berlin as his front business, Franz – along with heavily armed assistance from the Reich itself – has been slowly seeking out these potential superheroes from his dreams. One by one, these glorious freaks arrive with dreams of showcasing their special abilities in Hitler’s circus; and one by one they’re grimly dispatched from this world to the next if they aren’t those Franz has seen in his dreams. Only they – with his leadership – can lead Germany off history’s course of its downfall, and he’ll stop at nothing to change future for his Fuhrer. In the meantime, Franz – born with six fingers on each hand – entertains audiences with some of the wildest piano recitals possible with his own unique gift.
In fairness, there’s a lot more to the story as plotted out by Nicola Guaglianone and Gabriele Mainetti’s wonderful but occasionally dark script. (Mainetti also directs here.) Whilst Fulvio, Cencio, and Mario are inevitably abducted by Franz’s minions with their abilities tested by the Reich’s ‘scientists,’ Matilde finds herself rescued and adopted up by a motley crew of Italian freedom fighters committed to ridding their country of the Nazi menace once and for all. Once they learn of her ‘shocking’ abilities with electricity but she refuses to use her powers for resistance, the young lady is of little use to them. Inevitably, the paths of the team converge, leaving Franz to believe that these four are, indeed, tied to his Nostradamus-style dreams; and he sets out to convince the Reich that they might be the key to Germany’s survival.
It's a complicated plot, and Mainetti stages most of it with the kind of visual flourish one would expect from any imaginative yarn. At over two hours, the picture suffers in spots from pacing issues – some sequences stretch on a bit longer than absolutely necessary – and a trim here and there might’ve tightened up the pulse even when the focus shifts to quieter moments. Also, I’d argue that the flick’s audiences might have grown a bit uncomfortable with some of the more adult humor, especially given the overall ‘magical’ tone more commonly tied to kiddy fare: for example, Mario is prone to – ahem – masturbating when he’s nervous, and I daresay some parents might’ve grimaced with something so mature taking place in a film that’s largely popcorn entertainment. And because there are Nazis there are definitely some scenes involving heavy action, a bit of bloodshed, and some gruesome deaths.
But as adult fare?
Despite a bit of creative bloat, Freaks kept my attention and served up solid performances, fantastic visuals, and a compelling journey that should keep those who find it equally fascinated with mirth, mayhem, and magic.
Freaks Vs. The Reich (aka Freaks Out) (2021) was produced by Goon Films, Lucky Red, Rai Cinema, and a few other participating partners. (If you’re that interested in those details, then check out the fully listing on IMDB.com.) DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the good people at VMI Releasing. As for the technical specifications? Wowza. This 141-minute Fantasy looks incredible from start-to-finish, and I can imagine no expense was spared in bringing this visual thriller to bold cinematic life. Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? Alas, I was only provided a streaming link, folks, so I’ve got absolutely nothing to add on that front.
In total, unbridled honestly, I’ll admit to having more fun with Freaks Vs. The Reich than perhaps I’ve had in quite some time, especially with the fact that – in no small way – this fits the bill of about as high quality, interesting, and well-done Superhero-style origins film in the past few years. While its subject matter and circumstances might not have the family-friendly atmosphere that the Marvel and DC entries have adopted adopted (and run into the ground, some might suggest), I’d strongly encourage anyone penning scripts for that particular market take a long and serious look at what Freaks accomplishes narratively. It’s definitely quite magical, though I’d stop short at endorsing it for young viewers as the violence gets pretty heavy and overwhelming in the last reel.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at VMI Releasing provided me with complimentary streaming access of Freaks Vs. The Reich (2021) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.