Werner Herzog’s second feature film was a small, strange, black-and-white movie shot in 1969, and yet in 2015, it’s still a movie that matters, because Herzog’s career is still going strong. He hasn’t gone the way of other aging greats—say, Antonioni or his German New Wave contemporary Wim Wenders, who piddled out irrelevant films late in life after making era-defining work in their heyday. No, Herzog is another Godard, just as influential in film history, a legend who cannot be stopped at any age because he lives and bleeds film. It’s been 45 years since Even Dwarfs Started Small was released, and we can still look at this funny, genuinely unsettling work as a reflection on the film culture of today because its maker continues to refine and redraw the obsessions that drove him to make it.

Even Dwarfs is about rebellion, to make it plain, and in the film Herzog does. A small band of dwarfs, living in quasi-imprisonment on the Canary Island of Lanzarote (off the coast of Morocco), take their institution’s headmaster (also a dwarf) hostage and lock her inside her own facility. She has access to the roof, and from there she can plead with the gang to release her using the only bargaining chip she has: one of their number, a cackling simpleton she keeps tied to a chair. The rebels don’t have much sympathy for their bound compatriot; instead of using their freedom to secure his, they run amok on the facility’s grounds. All manner of farm and wild animal (including the chicken, one of Herzog’s constant obsessions) are defiled, debased and killed; sacred rites are cruelly mocked; and every member of the group deemed not as strong as the few dwarfs who lead the rebellion become subject to the malicious pranks that, over the course of a day, are the only thing any of the rebels can think to do.

The easy take on this little story, which vaguely resembles a social parable but which feels too loose and esoteric to be taken seriously as a metaphor, is that it’s about the cosmic commonality of human existence. Herzog seems to think we’re all equal, which sounds nice enough until you view his take on freedom in this movie. He seems to plainly state that freedom makes us all equally useless. The dwarfs can think of nothing better to do with theirs than engage in mean-spirited hijinks, but who can blame them? Outside of their facility is an isolated island of volcanic rock. Nature cares for us about as much as we care for our own institutions. Or something like that. With the early work of a great director it’s often best to focus on their nascent style, and give them a pass on the big themes, just until you get to the later stuff.

What really sticks in Even Dwarfs isn’t Herzog’s take on the comedic inanity of being a human animal, but the director’s undeniable raw talent. He proved he could construct trippy imagery with the best of them: Bunuel, Vigo, Parajanov, etc… Young Herzog burns image after image into you with this film: a team of tip-toeing dwarfs advance silently on two of their blind brethren, ready to unleash torture if they are heard; the entire rebel gang creeps, crawls and climbs across the Lanzarote landscape of volcanic rock, trying to reach the source of a sound that probably isn’t there; the rebels tie a monkey to a crucifix and parade it around a courtyard in which they’ve rigged the facility’s van to drive in endless circles; they dance through the same courtyard after lining up every flower pot they can find and setting them on fire. The imagery is appropriately disturbing even if the swirling metaphors that course through the skeleton of the story don’t quite land.

Herzog has never been shy about speaking in depth about his films—a happy fact of film history provided by one of its key artists—but with this one he doesn’t have much to explain: Even Dwarfs Started Small is about a young filmmaker with a killer eye and access to a haunting location and incredible subjects, stringing a story together on the sheer strength of his creativity and willpower. See it to find out where the mind behind Fitzcarraldo and Stroszek came from.

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One Comment

  1. S Reason

    June 13, 2020 at 7:16 am

    Unfortunately this makes some factual errors about the film that require correction:
    > A small band of dwarfs, living in quasi-imprisonment on the Canary Island of Lanzarote (off the coast of Morocco), take their institution’s headmaster (also a dwarf) hostage and lock her inside her own facility. She has access to the roof, and from there she can plead with the gang to release her using the only bargaining chip she has: one of their number, a cackling simpleton she keeps tied to a chair.
    In fact, it is that the institution’s “principal” has left a single instructor (a man, not a woman) to watch after the inmates. That instructor barricades himself inside the offices for unclear reasons, but refuses to leave to “save face.” Indeed, the dwarves repeatedly demand he unlock the doors and come out, so it’s unclear where the author got this notion of the imprisoned female headmaster.

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