One of the many things that makes film such an interesting medium of art is its capability to be perceived differently and evolve in meaning as new contexts and audiences shift around it. Political, historical, and social changes strongly affect HOW a film is watched and what lessons can be extracted from them. It is in this context that I present to you Tod Browning’s Freaks, a film which, in my opinion, is essentially unwatchable, not only for its nearly incomprehensible dialogue but for what I feel is the film’s exploitative nature.
Freaks, as the title may suggest, follows a group of circus performers with a variety of physical conditions as they fight for acceptance and tolerance among their other circus folk. For this film, Browning actually hired real circus performers whom he had worked with over the years, so this film is abound with bearded women, Siamese-twins, individuals with only one or zero limbs, and even the Earles family, of Lollipop Guild fame. Though their presence on screen is the source of the film’s fear, more often than not their presence elicits disgust or, in the case of my class, laughter. Though I can’t exactly blame them for their snickering; the portrayal of these “freaks” is so surreal, so alien to modern day ideologies that, for an instant, I thought they were the result of special and practical effects.
Of course, it is very easy to criticize things from the past with the arrogance of the present. As corroborated from stories of the time, many of the actors were happy to have work on screen, and to some this was an opportunity to normalize a group of ostracized individuals. Browning went through great lengths to show the disparity between our preconceived notions of what a “freak” is and what these individuals were actually like–they eat together, socialize, and, as evidenced by the bearded lady’s newborn son, they have intimate relationships. On the other hand, the physically “normal” individuals are all conniving, prejudiced, jerks who are only interested in themselves. “Who are the real freaks,?” this film seems to ask the audience.
However, this is the very problem I have with “brave” films, movies which try to shed light on lesser-known people and their stories but spend so much time patting themselves on the back that they eschew genuine character development for trite and banal stereotypes that only serve to reinforce the sense of “otherness” these characters feel. While it is rare to see less-than physically flawless actors on screen, and even though the “freaks” are portrayed sympathetically, their presence still feels highly exploitative.
The story line itself doesn’t do much to empower these characters. Cleo, a full-heighted trapeze artists, pretends to fall in love with Hans, a little person, after she hears of his “small fortune” (har har). She conspires to marry and subsequently poison Hans so as to obtain his riches. When her plot is discovered, she is mangled into a half-chicken freak. Aside from the shockingly amoral black widow stereotype portrayed in Cleo, is this the kind of lesson that should be learned? That if you don’t treat those who are different from you with respect you will become the selfsame thing you resent? Such a lesson only reinforces the sense of otherness this film tries to avoid.
Perhaps I’m looking at this film incorrectly; nearly 100 years stands between the making of the film and my writing this review. As our country has grown and shifted, our ideologies do as well. One can view people not just as labels, but as humans with stories and begin to empathize with their experiences. I’m not sure I can recommend this film, but there is perhaps no better litmus test for our modern sociology than a film as unsettling and embarrassing as this one.