DVD Review Of Even Dwarfs Started Small

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/15/07


  Werner Herzog’s black and white 1970 film, Even Dwarfs Started Small (Auch Zwerge Haben Klein Angefangen) is one of those films that is beyond such grounded definitions as good and bad, and, like its American predecessor, Freaks, is simply one of the oddest films ever made. Bad critics have praised it for all the wrong reasons- such as being a statement on politics, the Vietnam War, the partition of Germany, against religion, and prudish ignorants have condemned it for similarly wrong reasons. Yet, few have ever watched it all the way through with unsparing eyes. It is a film that has a very sparse narrative structure, seeming improvisations, yet it is clearly not an early example of Postmodern preening, nor is it an amorphic surreal mess in the Warhol Factory mode. It is, however, like Freaks, neither as good nor bad as its greatest champions nor detractors claim it is. In fact, as one of the earliest films in the Herzog canon, made concurrently with the ‘documentaries’ Fata Morgana and The Flying Doctors Of East Africa, it far more resembles such low budget 1960s black and white horror masterpieces as Herk Harvey’s Carnival Of Souls, Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13, and George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, or even the low budget 1960s films of American maverick filmmaker Sam Fuller. Yet, it is both a horror film and a black comedy.

  The overall narrative, if there is one, is that in a land (or perhaps planet) that consists solely of dwarves (like the cult classic comedy Terror Of Tiny Town), there is a rebellion at a far off asylum, after some incident has occurred that results in the confinement and disciplining of a dwarf named Pepe (Gerd Gickel), who never says a word through the film, but laughs sickeningly throughout, as his tormentor, the head of the asylum (Pepi Hermine), has barricaded the two of them inside his office as a band of a dozen or so other dwarves try to break inside to free him. As the film progresses through a series of vignettes, little seems to occur, save that the ‘rebellion’ gets more bizarre, fragmented, silly, and violent. The dwarves run roughshod over the asylum, breaking things, setting flowerpots and plants aflame with gasoline, setting a truck loose to spin around in circles, sadistically torturing a pair of blind dwarves, and then casting the truck down a seemingly bottomless pit. Several times throughout the film, the asylum boss and the rebellious dwarves clash from afar, as he casts down threats to bodily harm Pepe if they do not stop. Of course, they do not stop.

  The film also has moments of silence that punctuate it, as well as bizarre Antonionian landscapes, and scenes where cannibalistic chickens eat a dead chicken, several healthy chickens attack a one legged chicken, chickens are tossed through glass windows, a pig is slaughtered and its piglets nurse from its dead teats, the dwarves look at old porno magazines, have a food fight and throw plates at the relentlessly circling truck, engage roosters in cockfights, and then, bizarrely, strap a little monkey to a crucifix and parade it toward the asylum boss’s office. There’s also an oddly humorous scene where the two shortest dwarves- a young female and an old man named Hombre (Helmut Döring) are forced to ‘marry’, and sent to a bedroom to consummate the act, but Hombre is too short, old, and weak, to even pull himself up on the bed.

  In the end, the asylum boss does hurt Pepe, although offscreen, as we hear his cries, and the rest of the dwarves scatter. The asylum boss runs out of the compound and insanely starts threatening a gnarled dead tree to lower its ‘finger’ at him. The final image of the film is of Hombre laughing and coughing and laughing hysterically as a camel kneels in front of him and bizarrely defecates onscreen. That’s it, the end. No great statement nor visual, just a slice of dementia that seems willing to go on and on like a skipping record, if only the film did not run out.

  Despite some symbolism, the film is not really an allegory, like George Orwell’s Animal Farm. It is a hodgepodge of images that work only in a bizarre dream logic, heightened by its black and white cinematography by Thomas Mauch. For example- if the land or planet is all filled with dwarves, why is all the furniture made for average sized people? And why are the porno mags filled with normal sized people? And, if there is only the asylum boss left of the asylum staff, why don’t the rebels simply leave? Then there is the odd African tribal music, which was left over from Fata Morgana, and recorded by Florian Fricke, which only adds horror to this nightmarish M.C. Escherian-like film. Yet, this film cannot be dismissed as merely a gimmick film, for it does have such fidelity to its own bizarre cosmic rules, and never breaks them- as do most supposed ‘dream’ films do, which usually end as dully and conventionally as a Hollywood film. Also, never is there a moment, like in Freaks (a film Herzog claims on the commentary to not have seen until after he made this film), where the film nor filmmaker seems to feel ashamed at ‘exploiting’ the dwarves. The whole work has the feel of a ‘lost episode’ of the great British television series The Prisoner.

  The DVD, released as part of Anchor Bay’s Werner Herzog collection, is full frame (1.33:1), but has many scratches and defects in it. There is what looks almost like a spider’s web in many of the wider landscape shots. The film is in German with English subtitles, and has a feature length commentary with Herzog, Anchor Bay’s interviewer Norman Hill, and Crispin Glover, in which Glover literally says his name in the beginning, and nothing else, as Hill asks inane questions that Herzog answers. But, when Herzog basically starts interviewing himself, the film commentary really takes off, as Herzog is one of the most interesting artists around, and a bounty of information- real and fabricated. As example, Herzog claims he was an autodidact filmmaker, never having studied film, nor gone to film school, and not even having seen a film until he was over the age of ten. He also states that he never dreams, or never recalls his dreams, at night, so sees film as his way to have waking dreams. He also expounds upon the film’s being banned in Germany for decades, his and its being reviled by the loony Left for supposed cruelty to animals and mockery and exploitation of the dwarves, while the racist Right also loathed him for his heresy and mockery of religion and traditional institutions.

  Yet, the film, also written by Herzog, is not about rebellion, but weak anomy and enervation, for nothing is accomplished in the end, except mindless anarchism. The screenplay, such as it is, is virtually nonexistent, and, save for the soliloquies of the asylum boss, none of it matters, in terms of content. The film was shot on one of the Spanish Canary Islands, Lanzarote, which is a bleak volcanic wasteland, and mostly from the eye level of the dwarves, which adds to the monstrous feel that the ‘normal things’ take on. That it only runs 96 minutes is a good choice, but if the film was only 70 or so minutes in length it would be even more effective. As it is, it as an oddball film that fits no categories, is beyond good and bad, yet also an early example of Herzog’s continuing filmic war against the evil of nature- which Herzog sees as despairingly immanent. For the rest of us, the sights and sounds of the two sickest of the dwarves- Pepe and Hombre- laughing maniacally until they both seem ready to drop dead, is one of the most bizarre and powerful images recorded on film, as well as one of the scariest. It may not mean a damned thing, but it sure packs a wallop. Would that every film could say even that much.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Unlikely 2.0 website.]

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