Werner Herzog shot Even Dwarfs Started Small (Auch Zwerge Haben Klein Angefangen) on the Canary Islands immediately after shooting (but before releasing) Fata Morgana during his travels to East Africa. Though the film was immediately banned in Germany, it made the young director famous and remains as one of the most distinctive (and grotesque) films ever made. The story concerns some sort of institution in a desolate volcanic landscape, where all the inmates and the supervising personnel are dwarfs. In fact no non-dwarf is seen in the film.
At the outset, we see a police investigation post-mortem concerning a revolt that has taken place at the institution. The off-camera policeman asks how all this destruction got started, and then we cut to a narrative in flashback that comprises the remainder of the film.
When the principal and some of the instructors were temporarily away, the inmates started their rebellion by attempting to storm the administrative building. The Director barricades himself inside, along with an inmate taken hostage, Pepe, whom he ties up in a chair. Giddy with excitement from their newfound freedom from authority, the rebellious inmates start to engage in various naughty acts, such as looking through just-discovered adult magazines that belonged to their instructors. Soon they move to progressively more destructive actions, such as burning and destroying a lone palm tree that was a graceful feature of their desolate environment. They then go on to torture and kill barnyard animals at the institution and even their fellow blind inmates. All the while they are madly giggling with joy at how all the rules are being broken at will: it’s the sheer love of wanton, destructive behaviour.
The film that most strikingly comes to mind when watching Even Dwarfs Started Small is Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Both films confront us with ultimate questions concerning just what we are and what constitutes our humanity -- and at the same time they stir within us a deep sense of horror. Certainly Dwarfs is one of the bleakest films from a filmmaker whose trademark is human depravity and despair. What is particularly disturbing is that throughout this film we are torn by the opposing tendencies to see the dwarfs either as innocent children, or as wizened, deformed, and unnatural creatures. The dwarfs laugh innocently and play childish games one minute, and then gleefully engage in some cruel act in the next minute. Perhaps thankfully, the most violent events in the film take place off camera: the killing of the mother sow suckling its piglets, the murder of their fellow inmate, and the thrashing of Pepe.
The narrative doesn’t seem to traverse any clear-cut course, but it does leave one with a collection of disturbing images long after the lights come on. Here are some reflections on a few of them:
- The musical soundtrack mostly alternates between a wailing gypsy minstrel song and a native African choral piece. Both pieces have undertones of primitive urges that are far removed from modern Western society.
- Herzog is known to despise and fear chickens, and they must represent something overwhelmingly repulsive to him. Their relentlessly spasmodic movements and their often fierce, mindless savagery conjure up a sense of meaningless animal brutality. In this film, he repeatedly shows chickens and roosters attacking, killing, and sometimes eating each other. This is Herzog’s view of the benignity of Nature.
- There are two blind inmates in the institution who can only defend themselves from their fellow-inmate tormentors by wildly swinging plastic bats in random directions. The utter futility of this exercise and the hopelessness of their circumstances is a repeated motif in the film.
- There is a moment in the middle of the film when the inmates are somewhat contemplative as they are shown a “doll house” of artificially dressed-up dead insects and spiders that have been collected by one of their members and kept in a cigar box. The absurdity of these bugs being cast in human social roles and just how far those roles are from their brute reality is clearly a metaphor for the dwarfs, and by extension, to all of humanity.
- The inmates gleefully set fire to a bunch of potted pots that have just begun to flower. This shows their contempt for Nature and perhaps symbolizes their revenge for what Nature has done to them.
- Late in the piece, the dwarfs engage in a solemn and ceremonial procession as they carry about on a cross a live monkey that they have crucified. This is evidence not only of their own ritualistic brutality, but is also a suggestion that all religions are little more than mindless exercises in barbarity.
- In the final scene, the smallest and meekest of the inmates, Hombre, laughs hysterically at a kneeling camel that finally defecates on camera. The sheer stupidity and pointlessness of Hombre’s nonstop laughter is all that we are left with at the end of the film.