Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)
Dir. Werner Herzog
Written by: Werner Herzog
Starring: Helmut Döring
Well this was certainly an interesting first-time watching experience for me. Even Dwarfs Started Small, Herzog’s second feature, was included in the Herzog box set that I purchased a few years ago, and it was one of the films of his that I hadn’t seen that I was keen to eventually get around to watching. As it turns out, I wouldn’t find myself making the time until this project started so I waited until getting to its turn in the alphabetical lineup of my discs to finally check this movie out. I was only familiar with the film’s plot and its use of a cast made up entirely of little people, so I didn’t go in with any real expectations about the movie. I’m not sure that I enjoyed the film, overall, but it was an interesting watch, and I did notice a strong affinity to some directorial traits that would appear later in Herzog’s filmography, as well as elements that have clearly been influential on later filmmakers. It’s always interesting to me to go back and watch early entries into the bodies of work of acclaimed filmmakers and see where they got their start.
Even Dwarfs Started Small is a satire set in a far-away country where all of the inhabitants are little people. The film opens with Hombre (Döring) being booked by police and questioned about his role in an uprising at a remote institution. In flashbacks, the audience becomes witness to the uprising and the chaos that ensues when the wards of the institution rebel against their instructors. The uprising begins at a fevered pitch, with the inmates of the institution having forced their instructor to barricade himself within the institution with a hostage, Pepe (Gerd Gickel), who is also a ward of the institution. The rebellion quickly descends into total chaos as the inmates set fires, kill one of the pigs that lives on the institution, and generally run roughshod over the grounds of the institution. In the end, the inmates seem to have accomplished very little through their uprising, as it is quashed by the police, but they did get to spend one afternoon living in absolute freedom, for better or for worse, and made quite a mockery of several societal institutions in the process.
I would be hard pressed to say that I actually liked Even Dwarfs Started Small, but it was certainly an interesting viewing experience, and one that I won’t soon forget. The film is incredibly simple, with Herzog simply documenting his cast running amok under his direction. Narratively, the rebellion is given little political or social context, although there is a general sense of a desired egalitarianism among the wards of the institution. They seem to desire the same freedoms as the guards and the instructors, however, their sense of social justice seems to be limited to their own group, as the would-be revolutionaries seem quick to harass and belittle a couple of blind wards who are kept separate from the general population of the institution. Herzog seems to be making the point that all political revolutions are ultimately facile, and that given enough power or enough freedom, any revolutionary group will eventually descend into a brutal form of anarchy. While I disagree with this sentiment, and I think that it’s an overly pessimistic view of society and of then-recent revolutions around the world, I applaud Herzog’s artful attempt to portray his viewpoint. Despite its raucous subject matter, Herzog’s film unravels poetically, and he captures some distinctive and memorable images in service of his overall thesis.
Even Dwarfs Started Small feels something like a fever dream, with strange images surfacing in front of the camera, and brief narrative asides that explore some minutiae that is only tangentially related to the overall plot. Halfway through the film, one of the wards opens up a small box that she has kept close to her person for the entire film to reveal it to be full of insects that she has dressed up in formal wear. She pulls each tiny creature from the box, showing off their dresses, coats, and top hats, while the other wards look on in curious fascination. Later in the film, the wards steal the institution’s truck, ostensibly to go into town, but they only get so far as the institution’s central courtyard where they leave the truck running in lazy circles while they chase one another around the courtyard, trying to avoid being struck down. Several times, Herzog cuts to the curiously circling car, seeming to provide a visual representation of the pointless chaos that is unraveling at the institution. Shortly before the film’s end, the wards capture a monkey and parade around the institution with it tied to a cross in a scathing mockery of religious ritual and iconography. All of these instances of strange, unmotivated behavior help lend the film its dreamlike qualities, and also add to its satirical impact. Throughout the film, Herzog is sending up society and its hypocrisies, using the little people in his cast in a pseudo-allegorical role to prove a point about the devolution of society in pursuit of total freedom. While I think that his overall premise is somewhat flawed and his casting of little people could be considered pejorative, because using people with a disability in an allegorical/symbolic role essentially denies them of their personhood, there’s no denying that the film has some powerful and memorable imagery.
It’s not surprising that this film has proven to be influential, not just on Herzog’s later career, but for many other outsider artists and filmmakers. Harmony Korine, perhaps the modern standard bearer for earlier enfants terrible such as Herzog and Lars von Trier, cites Even Dwarfs Started Small as a major touchstone for his own films. Herzog himself has often visually referenced the film, particularly the motif of the car circling out of control which he returns to in Stroszek, and the tension between the individual’s desire for freedom and society’s need for structure and stricture has been a guiding theme throughout his filmography. Despite understanding the importance of the movie to a subset of filmmakers and, likely, audiences, I just didn’t really enjoy Even Dwarfs Started Small. It’s a fine movie, but it almost seems to be provocation for the sake of being provocative, and I find its central theoretical assumptions about society to be facile and fundamentally incorrect. It’s an interesting thought experiment, but I found myself very bored by the film’s midway point. Despite all of the apparent upheaval that takes place in the film, nothing much really happens in Even Dwarfs Started Small. I won’t soon forget the film’s brief moments of visual clarity, particularly the procession with the crucified monkey, as they do form the basis of an intriguing experimental film critique of society, but the overall film left me pretty cold. It’s disappointing, because this is a movie that I had long looked forward to watching, and perhaps in the context of more early Herzog films that I’ll be screening soon for this project, I’ll gain a better appreciation for Even Dwarfs Started Small. As it stands now, the movie seems mostly important to me as a foundational text from which Herzog clearly draws later, but it’s not a movie that I feel compelled to revisit soon.