In a segment that is silent and black and white, we are shown three different, brief scenes, with titles between them explaining what’s happening a la the early days of cinema.
First is Johann who enters a Russian town through immigration control.
Then Dr Stasov, who adopts Siamese infants. Two boys of Asian extraction attached by what appears to be a thick web of skin at the hip—and perhaps the bone but no organs.
And finally, Engineer Radlov and his wife have their five year old daughter, Leeza, photographed, using a head stabilizer to hold her in place for the length of time it takes to expose the film.
Time has moved forward by many years and now everything is sepia toned. Engineer Radlov’s wife has died and Leeza is now a young woman. Johann comes by the house—he owns the studio that took the photo of Leeza. He has stopped by to see Grunya—the Radlov’s maid.
She has not told the family they are related, though.
Johann has a studio where they take photos of an adult nature. Bare bottoms and birching and whatnot. The costumes and settings are perfect if you’ve seen photos of that type from that period.
Johann has a henchman/assistant named Viktor Ivanovich. He is bald and wears a derby and has the perfect teeth for a henchman.
Viktor Ivanovich comes by the doctor’s house (the one who adopted the twins) to deliver some of the scandalous photos to the maid. So all of the three stories from the Prologue are connected.
We learn Yekaterina, the doctor’s wife, is blind, as we see her playing the piano and teaching the twins to sing.
Later Viktor Ivanovich is in the street—he calls to Leeza—and sells some of the photographs to her, as well. It’s obvious this has been pre-arranged. That it’s women buying photos of other women being birched is an interesting departure from what is usually portrayed in the media.
We follow the various characters on their journeys as they intertwine.
Viktor sees the twins one day and becomes fascinated by them. He goes to the doctor’s house to see them again and has an… interesting encounter with the doctor’s wife. Accidentally introducing her to her masochistic side, which is explored in greater depth later.
This relationship gives him access to the twins, which is it’s own bizarre situation.
When the film begins, photography is somewhat common. During the course of events, moving pictures come into vogue and Johann invests in a camera for his photographer, Putilov.
Because as soon as cinema is invented, porn was sure to follow. BDSM porn, no less.
And everyone lived happily ever after.
Just kidding. This is a Russian film, after all.
It was very Russian in atmosphere—just the quirkiness of it. And not in a ‘look at us, being so whimsical!’ sort of way, either. It reminded me of A Young Doctor’s Notebook in terms of the ability to capture the Russian weirdness on film. (That one isn’t kinky, but I highly recommend it. It’s based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s writings.)
I found myself hoping to find trivia about the film online. It was such a wonderfully odd little piece I wanted to know more about it. Alas, bupkis.
There was much more going on than I lay out in the plot description—the movie is also reminiscent of early films in that the scenes are quite short so a lot happens quickly. But I didn’t want to give away everything. Like Russian literature, there is a healthy number of characters and everyone has their own story.
I really enjoyed Of Freaks and Men, but I can see how a person could get to the end and not appreciate it. It is it’s own little bit of strangeness populated with special people.
The only criticism I have is that the ‘twins’ (played by two not-twins) seemed rather young for one of the scenes. I couldn’t find their ages and I’m sure they were legal, but there was one bit that made me a little uncomfortable.
Then again, they could also be the sort of people who look very young but are actually twenty. It’s only one moment so if you watch it and get to that part don’t worry, it’s not going to progress to something more adult later.
Overall, I’d give this 4/5.