To put it mildly, Even Dwarfs Started Small is a bit bizarre… Because Herzog’s film makes little direct reference to social-historical conditions outside of the sealed-of institution in which it takes place, questions remain as to what the film ‘means.’ It seems as though something is being allegorized, but little in the film helps decode it… [Dwarfs is] indeed allegorical in the way that Kafka’s works are allegorical: it reflects the world back to us not as it actually is, but in a distorted form, as though seen through a glass darkly. The intention may be to force us to recognize our world by re-presenting it to us in this strange and alienating incarnation.”–Brad Pager in The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth
DIRECTED BY: Werner Herzog
FEATURING: Helmut Döring, Paul Glauer, Pepi Hermine
PLOT: As the film begins we infer that a group of people in some sort of institution, possibly a mental asylum, have revolted, and an “instructor” has barricaded himself in a manor house while holding one of them prisoner. As the instructor tries to reason with the rebels and waits for the arrival of the police, the insurgents vandalize the property in increasingly bizarre ways: lighting flower pots on fire, fixing a stolen car so that it circles endlessly around a track and throwing crockery at it, and crucifying a monkey. All parts are played by dwarfs, although the buildings and props are scaled normally.
- Herzog financed Even Dwarfs Started Small, his second feature, with funds he received when he won the German National Film Award for his first feature film, Signs of Life. Dwarfs was then banned by the German censors on its release.
- The film was shot on Lanzarote, a volcanic island in the Canary Islands.
- Herzog partially attributes the dark influences of the film to the fact that before making it he had been imprisoned in a third world prison while shooting footage for another movie in Cameroon in the paranoid weeks after a coup attempt. While incarcerated he contracted a blood parasite and ran a high fever.
- The production was plagued with problems: one of the dwarfs was struck by the driverless car (he was unscathed), then the same actor caught on fire (he had minor injuries). With the morale among the non-professional troupe low, Herzog promised the actors that if they completed the film, he would jump into a cactus patch and allow them to film it. The actors stuck with it and Herzog fulfilled his end of the bargain.
- A scene of piglets nursing at what appears to be the corpse of their mother is disturbing and proved highly controversial. The sow’s eyes are shut and it lies almost perfectly still, but its legs clearly jerk during the feeding—though perhaps this is just a post-mortem reflex.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Hombre, the tiniest dwarf with the most demonic laugh, nearly chuckling himself to death as he watches a camel struggling to rise to its feet. Watch the scene and share an inexplicable nightmare with millions of other human beings.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even the title of Even Dwarfs Started Small starts weird. What
Japanese trailer for Even Dwarfs Started Small
follows is a grotesque parade of cannibalistic chickens, insects dressed as a bride and groom, a crucified monkey, a defecating camel, and dwarfs running amok destroying everything in sight. Presented in bleak black and white in a heartlessly cold documentary style, it’s the gloomiest depiction of the triumph of the irrational ever filmed.
COMMENTS: A provocateur knows he is doing something right when he gets criticized from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Shot in the late 1960s, when cultural revolution was as hip as body painting and paisley bedecked bell bottoms, Herzog’s depiction of an unmotivated rebellion of dwarfs at an unspecified institution seemed like it must have been intended a commentary on the times. The remnants of German Fascism were outraged by Herzog’s degenerate vision of man and society, a vision that was antithetical to the utopian purity of National Socialism. They must have seen the film as a call for decadents and freaks to revolt; Herzog reported that he received anonymous phone calls from Aryans bragging about their aim. The Left, on the other hand, accused Herzog of mocking the worldwide countercultural revolution, depicting it as futile, destructive and childish. (They were right, it turns out, although that wasn’t the director’s main purpose).
Those attempting to give Dwarfs a political interpretation—seeing at the institutional rebellion as a metaphor for what was going on in the larger society—were looking through the wrong end of Herzog’s telescope. They should have taken a cue from the diminished perspective of dwarfs and looked down rather than up, inward instead of outward, seeing the absurd insurgency as a metaphor for the human psyche rather than human society. Although Herzog was new to the scene at the time, we now understand that he is personal rather than a political filmmaker; an ecstatic, not a didactic, artist. Dwarfs is a nightmare, and nightmares originate in the self, not in society. The institution is the Self, and the reason we have trouble picking a side in this conflict between the authoritarian, rational instructor and the rampaging rebel inmates is because they both represent parts of ourselves. We lust after the unfettered libidinal freedom of the rebels, yet we fear the dangerous and destructive anarchy they represent; we chafe under the rule of our own internal instructor, while at the same time we hope he will somehow find the strength put down the uprising and restore order to the mad landscape.
We don’t know who is “right” and who is “wrong” in the power struggle that unfolds in Dwarfs. We know that the instructor, and presumably his missing staff, ruled over the residents of the nameless institution prior to the uprising; but we have no idea whether the inmates were mistreated, or merely revolted out of boredom or spite. From the irrational behavior of the freed dwarfs it seems likely that the institution is an insane asylum, although the nomenclature (the instructor refers to his absent superior as “the principal”) suggests a school. The instructor has managed to capture Pepe, one of the rebels, and tied him to a chair. He restrains him, but he doesn’t mistreat him. He warns the mob that unspecified harm will come to Pepe if the rebels don’t calm down, but none of the other dwarfs consider it a credible threat: they see the instructor as a coward with no guts. In fact, he’s restrained by his civilized nature and adherence to rules; he’s too ethical to hurt Pepe. He recites the institution’s motto–“Cleanliness and Order”—and pleads with the mob to be “sensible” or “reasonable.” He is ridiculously, stupidly ineffectual at quelling the rebellion, calling the police on a dead phone and asking the dial tone for help. Impotent and despondent, he sits at his desk fiddling his hands and asks Pepe what he would do if their situations were reversed. Pepe laughs at him. The instructor, the voice of reason, has lost all control, and outside of the citadel he’s imprisoned in, glorious chaos reigns.
If the instructor is too weak to admire, the rambunctious little people are too cruel and unpredictable to love. Their freedom is intoxicating, but they take things too far for any but the most dedicated nihilist. Food fights and breaking dishes are fun, and the truck they steal and rig so that it travels in an endless circle looks like a blast. But they are mean even to their own kind. The gang torments the two blind dwarfs, stealing food from them and laughing as they swing their canes wildly. They watch cockfights for entertainment, and they tie a monkey to a cross and parade him around. Like young teenagers playing sex games, they force the smallest two of them to “marry,” laughing and locking them in a room together hoping they will mate, even as the male, Hombre, struggles to escape and howls that he doesn’t want to. The actors are all obvious amateurs, and their unstudied performances lend another layer of oddness to the proceedings. Disconcertingly, the dwarfs all laugh and giggle uncontrollably most of the time, in those high-pitched voices, whether the situation calls for it or not. Whereas the child anarchists in Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (which, perhaps not coincidentally, also features an ineffectual dwarf in a position of authority) are unquestionably the heroes, Herzog casts a far more cynical and ambivalent eye on revolutionaries. These have no cause and no purpose. The glorious achievement of their revolution is a symbol of futility: a truck traveling in endless circles. Even as their freedom from all conventions fulfills a secret fantasy of the viewer, they are horrifying to watch.
Why dwarfs? The simple answer is the film wouldn’t be half as weird if it did not take place in a world of little people, a world where the exception (dwarfism) is the rule. Dwarfs unavoidably provoke an uncomfortable reaction in people of normal dimensions; they look “wrong,” even while we know intellectually that they are every bit as human as any of us. Against our will, the appearance of a dwarf (or any “freak”) creates a tension in us. We feel guilty about our own instinctual aversive reaction to them. We’re curious, but we don’t want to be caught staring. Yet, Herzog’s movie forces us to stare. A world in which everyone is a dwarf is a world we are unequipped to deal with; the baseline has been wiped out, and there is no longer any normal. The world of Dwarfs is inescapably real, but it frustrates our every expectation. Doorknobs and beds are too high for the inhabitants to use them. Nature itself—represented by the animal kingdom—is out of whack, perverted. The chickens are cannibals. Piglets continue to vainly suck at the teats of their mother after she’s dead (of all the twisted gloomy images in Dwarfs, this is the saddest and most shocking). Here is a disconcerting, frightening universe that shows no regard for our psychic comfort or need for order.
The triumph of irrationality seems so complete at the end of the film that it’s easy to forget that, per the official narrative, the dwarf rebellion was put down. The first scenes show us that Hombre and the others have been re-captured, and the status quo—whatever that was—has been restored. This is hardly reassuring, because our experience as viewers has been quite different: we watch the dwarfs behavior become crazier and more unhinged until finally all reason has been shattered. The insurgents finally force the instructor to come out by throwing live chickens through the windows and by threatening to hang one of their own. The instructor cracks under the pressure; he starts taking his furniture from his office and stacking it on the roof. Suddenly, from nowhere and without explanation, a dromedary appears in the courtyard, kneeling as if to pray. The instructor runs out of his refuge and all is lost; once outside his sanctuary, he’s as insane as the rest. He runs past the dwarfs, past the kneeling camel, and to a dead tree in a field, which he yells at, then enters into a pointing contest with.
Meanwhile, Hombre is chuckling uncontrollably as the beast in the courtyard struggles to stand up. It raises one foreleg, then puts it down, and Hombre laughs and laughs, until he’s no longer laughing out of mirth. The laughter has trapped him and he can’t escape it; he’s laughing himself to death. The camel voids its bowels in distress. Hombre keeps on laughing, until he starts coughing; he wipes his mouth and starts laughing again. Minutes pass. Herzog keeps the camera on the laughing dwarf; if there was ever a joke here, for either Hombre or for the viewer, it ceased to be funny long ago. There is no better way to describe this nightmarish finale than with Herzog’s own words from the DVD commentary track, speaking about Hombre’s long last laugh: “This was frightening for me. He seems to be laughing but it’s getting really out of hand… Sometimes there is no mercy in filmmaking. I mean, it didn’t really do him harm but that was a moment when I thought, ‘Oh my God, I must stop this. I should cut. I should end it.’ And here, the moment comes very, very soon where I couldn’t take it any longer. And I still keep watching, and in a moment I thought, ‘now, I can’t go any further.’ Just stop the camera, end the film, and that’s that. And the pain, hopefully, is over.” Then, mercifully, the screen fades to black.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…[the] images, because of their essential meaninglessness, become their own reason for being. ‘Even Dwarfs Started Small’ eventually is indistinguishable from its Germanic, side-show spectacle, as if it were a movie that had been conceived by the same kind of perverse, uninvolved intelligence that had created the world of the film.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“…one of the most bizarre and hilariously disturbing freakshows ever executed by a major director…”–Wade Major, Boxoffice Magazine
IMDB LINK: Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Herzog jumps cactus.mov – YouTube clip of Herzog discussing Dwarfs and the cactus incident, from the documentary Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe
Even Dwarfs Stated Small: Werner Herzog and the Aesthetics of the Grotesque – Against Herzog’s direct wishes, B. R. Sebok links Dwarfs to the Rabelaisian grotesque tradition for the journal Kinema
Examining the Role of Disability in Herzog’s Even Dwarves Started Small – Politically correct analysis of the depiction of dwarfs in the film, by David Church in the Fall 2005 edition of Disability Studies Quarterly
even dwarfs started small | Tumblr – Stills, YouTube clips and quotes tagged with “Even Dwarfs Started Small” on Tumblr
DVD INFO: The 1999 Anchor Bay DVD (buy) is presented in a full-frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio (close enough to the film’s actual 1.37:1 proportions). It contains liner notes written by Crispin Glover (!) (who was considering making a Dwarfs-inspired film at the time, most likely the movie that became What Is It?). The disc itself features a short but informative Werner Herzog bio and a commentary track consisting of an impressive three-way chat between Herzog, Glover and Norm Hill.
The film is also available as part of Anchor Bay’s 6-disc “Werner Herzog Collection” (buy), along with The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Heart of Glass, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and Stroszek. The same commentary track is included on this set.
(This movie was nominated for review by “Gideon.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)