Even Dwarfs Started Small

Werner Herzog, 1970

One director whose vast spectrum of work has been criminally overlooked by a mainstream audience, but whose reputation as an outlandish filmmaker and wide output of feature-lengths has gained him a devoted cult audience is German director Werner Herzog. With notorious tales of his unconventional methods in filmmaking often matching the actual features themselves, from the famously chaotic production of Fitzcarraldo, to his legendary tumultuous working relationship with actor Klaus Kinski, these stories act almost as counterparts to the features. Following his debut film Signs of Life in 1968 and encompassed in commercial and critical acclaim, Herzog's next feature was released in 1970 to a largely disfavorable audience, branding him a 'fascist' due to themes within his film. Even Dwarfs Started Small follows a group of dwarfs, isolated in a desolate institution, as they rebel against their enforcers and cause considerable mayhem and violence.

Whilst some may choose to view the use of an all-dwarf cast as somewhat of a novelty, Herzog himself claims that the use of little-people in the film is a satire on society, using the dwarfs to illustrate the overshadowing of people by the worlds of commerce and consumer goods, with the dwarfs riotous behavior against their confinement reflecting Herzog's views on the German student movement of 1968. Something that has become noticeably frequent within the films of Werner Herzog, is his use of animals, often acting as a metaphor, such as the famous image of a dancing chicken in Stroszek, to Nicholas Cage's hallucinatory visions of iguanas in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans. Although Herzog has expressed his love of nature, often choosing to document it on numerous occasions, in films such as Grizzly Man or Encounters at the End of the World, in Even Dwarfs his self-proclaimed fondness for animals becomes somewhat altered, with Herzog choosing to contrast various images of animals in and around the institution, with themes of death or execution throughout the movie, creating an almost haunting quality, most notable of which are scenes in which piglets suckle the teats of their dead mother, a long uninterrupted shot in which a crippled dromedary camel tries to stand, and a strangely surreal sequence, in which a live monkey is crucified and paraded around the courtyard. 

With Herzog's famous claims about his inability to dream, Even Dwarfs acts almost as a substitute for this, creating an ulterior reality, strewn with illogical patterns and surreal and often nightmarish imagery that is somewhat reminiscent of Tod Browning's Freaks, a movie Herzog considers to be one of the greatest films ever made, though what is similar in aesthetic, is entirely different in theme, whilst Freaks portrays the 'monsters' with real delicacy, the complete polar is depicted in the characters of Even Dwarfs. Whether the film was intended to be viewed in a dream-like fashion or as a satirical commentary on 1960's politics is open to interpretation by the audience, but as it remains, Even Dwarfs Started Small is an unregarded classic, and a notable second feature for one of the most important and original filmmakers working today.
words by danny walker.