20.12.14

Of Freaks and Men

Shot in sepia and interspersed with inter-titles, this Russian film evokes the beginnings of cinema, right down to the focus on faces silently reacting rather than speaking. Johann in particular is superbly enigmatic, eating carrots with cream (an auto-erotic symbol borrowed from Taxi Driver?) and gunning down foes willy-nilly. He is a pornographer specialising in sado-masochistic images targeted at a female audience. Along with his sinister assistant Victor, he wraps his tendrils around two bourgeois families and forces their vulnerable children to perform in his films. The women's subjection is partly consensual, and everyone seems to have their own repressed fetish (Johann for his demented nanny who spanks the victims in his films). If Of Freaks and Men is about anything, it's about the primary power of cinema to represent and fulfil people's desires - it was pornography before it was anything else. One of the patriarchs declares cinema to be the future of art, ironically something he won't live to see as the matter to which the new technology is applied gives him a heart attack.

What to make of the final frames, in which Johann, after seeing the film made by his former cameraman, drifts away on a block of ice into the horizon? A tribute to (or perhaps a condemnation of) all the unknown enthusiasts, freaks and weirdos that built the foundations of cinema.

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