Saturday, September 24, 2005

Film: Even Dwarves Started Small (1968). Dir. Herzog, W.

“There is something midget-like inside of us.” (Werner Herzog)

Following the critical success of his first cinematic release, Signs of Life,(1) Herzog, along with Wenders and Fassbinder, was on his way to becoming recognised as part of the German new wave. His next release was thus eagerly awaited in certain circles. Scripted within four or five days – Herzog had trained himself to write without correction – Even Dwarfs Started Small, filmed during 1968, however disgusted audiences and was in effect banned on release.(2) Furthermore it was castigated by both the left and right – the left for appearing to ‘belittle’ attempts at revolution, the right for the film’s lawlessness; its utter nihilism. The film also encountered criticism from animal rights campaigners, not least for the images of a crucified monkey, but also of chickens pecking at each other’s throats, dead pigs, and so forth – as Herzog suggested “something isn’t right with nature.” Hence it was in this context, the context that is of political unrest and student revolutions in Europe, that Herzog found himself the target of regular death threats.(3) Yet such an introduction to Even Dwarfs Started Small can only briefly intimate something of the challenges that are here brought to bear. It would nevertheless surely surprise a great many of Herzog’s admirers and critics that he acknowledges it as a film more likely to stand the test of time than other more established works like Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo. He describes Even Dwarfs Started Small as drawn from “a nightmare” communicating “something desperate…we cannot brush it aside.”

The film depicts dwarves railing against the institution of which they are a part in a world, it appears, entirely given over to dwarves. Observed from the dwarves’ perspective, machines in this environment like cars, typewriters, doors, and so forth appear outsized, incongruous, and essentially entirely alien. Against the oppression of this unfamiliar landscape, with their leader having been imprisoned, the anarchistic dwarves run riot – laughing in(s)anely, throwing chickens, and generally destroying everything in sight. It is a revolt against oppression which however threatens in turn its own oppression, in which hysterical laughter is one small step away from the laughter of meglomania and madness. In this respect it bears a nagging relation to the syndrome that afflicts Aguirre. In the context of the revelling dwarves, dionysiac revelry is the pretext for hysterical, pathetic cackling. Nevertheless, Even Dwarfs Started Small is an extremely amusing, comic film. It is, as Herzog reflects in that unmistakable German brogue, “the darkest comedy you could imagine.”


(1) The Carl Meyer prize for Signs of Life presented him with the money to fund this remarkable adventure, filmed as it was in the landscape of Lanzarote. Please refer to the film stills available on the photo gallery together with a few fine examples of Herzog's dialogue.
(2) Herzog recalls of having to hire out private cinemas to get the film shown.
(3) For Herzog this was no doubt a useful preparation for the later relationships that he was to forge with respect of his work, particularly with Klaus Kinski.

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