The fantasy and the future

Gabriele Mainetti on Franz Rogowski, Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and Freaks Out

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Gabriele Mainetti’s Freaks Out, co-written with Nicola Guaglianone, starring Franz Rogowski, Aurora Giovinazzo, Pietro Castellitto, Giancarlo Martini, Claudio Santamaria, and Giorgio Tirabassi opens Film at Lincoln Center and Cinecittà’s 21st edition of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema
Gabriele Mainetti’s Freaks Out, co-written with Nicola Guaglianone, starring Franz Rogowski, Aurora Giovinazzo, Pietro Castellitto, Giancarlo Martini, Claudio Santamaria, and Giorgio Tirabassi opens Film at Lincoln Center and Cinecittà’s 21st edition of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema

Giuseppe Bonito’s A Girl Returned (L’arminuta, adapted from the novel by Donatella Di Pietrantonio); Paolo Taviani’s Leonora Addio (The Demise Of Luigi Pirandello); Laura Bispuri’s The Peacock’s Paradise (Il Paradiso Del Pavone) starring Dominique Sanda, Alba Rohrwacher, Carlo Cerciello, and Maya Sansa; Chiara Bellosi’s Swing Ride (Calcinculo) with Gaia Di Pietro and Andrea Carpenzano; Nanni Moretti’s Three Floors (Tre Piani, adapted from the novel by Eshkol Nevo) with Margherita Buy, Adriano Giannini, Elena Lietti, Riccardo Scamarcio, Paolo Graziosi, and Rohrwacher, and Gabriele Mainetti’s Freaks Out, co-written with Nicola Guaglianone, starring Franz Rogowski, Aurora Giovinazzo, Pietro Castellitto, Giancarlo Martini, Claudio Santamaria, and Giorgio Tirabassi are six highlights of Film at Lincoln Center and Cinecittà’s 21st edition of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema.

Gabriele Mainetti with Anne-Katrin Titze on Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz, Georges Méliès, and more: “Basically Freaks Out is a melting pot …”
Gabriele Mainetti with Anne-Katrin Titze on Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz, Georges Méliès, and more: “Basically Freaks Out is a melting pot …”

What makes someone a freak in 1940s Italy? That depends on a million things in a time of changing alliances in a world spinning silently around a centre that does not hold. Freaks Out is set among circus folk. There’s Israel (Giorgio Tirabassi), the director, who assembled his impressive, multi-faceted attractions - Fulvio (Claudio Santamaria) the Wolf Man, a real renaissance connoisseur, Mario (Giancarlo Martini) the Magnetic Man, short in stature, tall in drive, the Cencio (Pietro Castellitto) the Albino Boy who can communicate with insects and is less gentle than his goldilocks promise, and Matilde (Aurora Giovinazzo), the Electric Girl whose powers could change the outcome of the war, if she knew how to use them.

Then there’s Franz (Franz Rogowski), the German pianist blessed with 12 fingers and the ability to see the future. He wants these “freaks” on his side. But what exactly is his side?

From Rome, Gabriele Mainetti joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Freaks Out.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi!

Gabriele Mainetti: Hi, I’m sorry, I’m walking in the streets. Today’s a holiday and I’ve got kids and I needed to bring out the dog, but I hear and see you perfectly.

AKT: Where are you walking?

GM: [Gabriele shows me a 360° view of the street] I’m in Rome.

AKT: I can see! Your film is opening Open Roads: New Italian Cinema in New York, which is quite an honour.

GM: I’m really happy.

AKT: There are lots of echoes of other films in yours. From the title onwards there looms Tod Browning’s Freaks from 1932. There is The Wizard Of Oz and some of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. How were you working with all these ghosts?

Gabriele Mainetti on the audition by Franz Rogowski for Franz in Freaks Out: “I shook his hand and I felt something.”
Gabriele Mainetti on the audition by Franz Rogowski for Franz in Freaks Out: “I shook his hand and I felt something.”

GM: Ha! What can I say? Some are direct quotes from movies, but what you got more are imaginaries that are quoted and they melt together with my story, with the “Italianity” of the project. There’s the cinema of the youth, what I’ve seen when I was very young, like The Wizard Of Oz.

The first movie I’ve seen was E.T. [the Extra-Terrestrial] by Steven Spielberg. One of my favourite movies of my life. There are quotes from E.T. too if you look at the movie carefully. The way she [Matilde] shines from her chest.

AKT: Oh, I get it!

GM: You get it? There are a lot of quotes. The movie starts with a direct quote of Méliès. We have the chief of the circus that says “You will see things that you haven’t seen.” As you know, Méliès was the father of fantastic cinema.

AKT: And Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang. I was also thinking of Baron Münchhausen, flying on the canon.

GM: Yeah, and then there’s the cinema of the university. I graduated in film studies. I could have been a critic. This is my collection of every year of one of the strongest critics we have here in Italy. It’s the top stuff. And then there’s the cinema of the experience when I started being an actor and wanted to become a director.

I tried to put everything together, what I studied and what I loved. Basically Freaks Out is a melting pot of all these genres. They help me, they are not ghosts that scare me. They are so strong and magical. The fact that I’m not scared of these great directors, it’s good.

Matilde (Aurora Giovinazzo) in Freaks Out
Matilde (Aurora Giovinazzo) in Freaks Out

AKT: As Franz [Rogowski] says in your film, “dreams can change the future.” The dreams go with the ghosts.

GM: Cinema is an oneiric experience.

AKT: Absolutely.

GM: I was surprised that in Venice people didn’t really talk about the theme that was at the centre of the story. It’s a coming-of-age story with diversity put at the centre. Apart from that Freaks Out is a movie about cinema.

AKT: One of your characters calls himself “the Cassandra of the Third Reich!” That is Franz, played by Franz Rogowski, who is a great actor. I have been following his career since Love Steaks, then Christian Petzold’s Transit and Undine, up to more recent films such as Great Freedom, Luzifer, In the Aisles. He has a very eclectic scope of roles, so to play a twelve-fingered pianist clairvoyant who is the head of a circus in fascist Italy makes perfect sense. How did you get to cast Franz?

GM: It was awkward, because I had a lot of success with They Call Me Jeeg. When I started preproduction of this movie, I was going inside the studio and I was always remissive and I kept saying I’m not the guy of Tiger Boy anymore, I don’t know if I can make a good movie again. I remember the casting said “we’re not going to do auditions, it’s going to be this role with this actor that I know is good.”

I’m not going to mention the guy that was supposed to do that role before. Then when he came and we were doing some rehearsals, it was so wrong. It just came out of my remissive attitude and I said “I don’t want to work with you.” I want to go to Germany and I want to audition actors. It was like four weeks before shooting.

Gabriele Mainetti on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: “There are quotes from E.T. too if you look at the movie carefully. The way she [Matilde] shines from her chest.”
Gabriele Mainetti on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: “There are quotes from E.T. too if you look at the movie carefully. The way she [Matilde] shines from her chest.”

And I went back to myself as I was when doing the other movie. We travelled there and we had like 15 very important German actors auditioning for it. The first one was Franz Rogowski. We were helped of course by a German casting director. He was impressed by Franz because he was a Shooting Star. And he came with that energy! I had never seen any movie of this guy. I shook his hand and I felt something. Then he completely took his clothes off and he did the first scene where he is stoned by ether.

The way he just fainted on the ground, I loved him immediately. He had the body of a dancer that breaks. It was very delicate the way he fell down. And we were playing and playing and then the casting director said “we’re running out of time, we have all these other actors there!” Then he said “Gabriele, I would really love to work with you.” I said “man, I’d love it too, everything is so great.”

We had six more actors to see that day and 12 tomorrow, then on to Vienna to see another actor. I said “Oh my god, I already found the actor!” This is how it was. We are good friends, our minds really linked, we are so much alike. I found a good friend and a great actor. I think he’s the best in the movie.

AKT: I agree. He is terrific in this role of a man who sees the future. I found interesting your choices of what in the future he sees. He sees cellphones and Nuremberg Trials. He is wearing at one point what looks like an Adidas jacket?

GM: Yes, Adidas was German.

Freaks Out opens Open Roads: New Italian Cinema in New York
Freaks Out opens Open Roads: New Italian Cinema in New York

AKT: Adolf Dassler, I know. And he’s playing with a Rubik’s Cube. A funny selection to represent the future.

GM: Yeah, the film I did before is very linked to what I know. I completely understand the fabric of Rome, I understand what happens there. I know what it’s like to be the guy from the banlieue of Rome. Doing a movie set in 1943 - I grew up here, you saw me walking down there, it’s about one kilometer from the Jewish ghetto - but being respectful of the Neo-Realistic approach, you really need to live those things to really understand. It was a fantastic way to tell a story but it’s a story that people born in the 1970s are telling, because we never lived the moments.

When we link it to the future we are making a pact with the audience. When you do movies of the past, why do you do them? Because you’re nostalgic of the moment or you want it to resonate in the now? I’m Italian and Rossellini and De Sica, they lived those moments and made movies in those times. Roma, città aperta [Rome, Open City] was shot in 1945. Real actors, real Second World War, real people that died. Paisan was also done during those times. So to me it was more interesting to just go into the fantasy and the future was that link.

AKT: Thank you! I’ll see you at the luncheon in New York!

GM: Thank you, see you there, ciao, ciao.

Freaks Out screens on Thursday, June 9 at 7:00pm, followed by a Q&A with Gabriele Mainetti inside Film at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.

Coming up - Gabriele Mainetti on the cast of Freaks Out, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America, Michael Haneke’s comment on Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, and the painful process of accepting yourself.

Open Roads: New Italian Cinema runs from June 9 through June 15.

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