Even Dwarfs Started Small

    I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony; but chaos, hostility and murder.
    – Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog’s 1970 film, Even Dwarfs Started Small (Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen). This film was shot with a cast consisting entirely of dwarfs. According to Herzog, he did this to show that “the world is created in a way that is not theirs”. The objects around them are designed for full-sized people. In one scene, for example, Hombre (Helmut Döring) tries unsuccessfully to climb onto a bed. “The dwarves in the film are not freaks,” Herzog says; rather, “[they are] well proportioned, charming, and beautiful people.” It is the world around them that is freakish. The film is a critique of our consumer culture. The characters are surrounded by over-sized chairs, motorcycles, cars, and other objects that they can’t really use. When this film was released, it was banned in Germany for being “anarchistic and blasphemous”. Some claimed the film was meant to ridicule the student movement of that time. Herzog certainly was not sympathetic to the movement. He once said:

    Contrary to most of my peers, I had already been much further out into the world. I had traveled, I had made films, I had already taken on responsibilities that very few people my age had. For me, this very rudimentary analysis that Germany was a fascist and repressive prison state, which had to be overpowered by a socialist utopian revolution, seemed quite wrong. I knew the revolution would not succeed because it was rooted in such an inadequate analysis of what was really going on, so I did not participate.

The characters in this film certainly don’t have any analysis of their situation. They seem to act purely on impulse, which eventually becomes a form of nihilism.

The film is set in an institution whose purpose is never made clear. One day the inmates rise up and take over the place. The director (Paul Glauer) is holed up in his office. He has taken one of the inmates, Pepe (Gerd Gickel), hostage. The inmates amuse themselves by playing games, which are fairly innocent at first, but which gradually become destructive. They kill a pig, pull down a palm tree and set fire to flowers. They torment two blind inmates. In a scene that is clearly meant to be sacrilegious, they “crucify” a monkey by tying him to a cross, which they then parade around the yard. (No doubt it was this scene that got the film banned in Germany.) The director eventually goes mad and runs away. In the last scene, we see Hombre laughing stupidly while a camel kneels in front of him and defecates.

This film is disturbing to watch, yet there are moments that are actually funny in a dark sort of way. Herzog has alternately called this film “darkest of comedies you can imagine” and “a very profound…collective nightmare”. In Herzog’s comedy and horror are never far apart. There are even funny moments in Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Violence and megalomania are appalling and yet grotesquely humorous.

During the filming of Even Dwarfs Started Small, one of the actors suffered a mild injury. Herzog promised the cast that if they made it through the rest of the filming without any more injuries, he would jump into a large cactus plant. He later kept his promise. Incidents such as this have made Herzog an almost mythical figure in contemporary cinema. The 2004 mockumentary, Incident at Loch Ness seeks to exploit this. It is purportedly a documentary about Herzog making a documentary about the Loch Ness monster. Although it has amusing moments, it feels a bit familiar. It’s only been twenty-eight years since the making of This is Spinal Tap, yet already the mockumentary is becoming cliché. How about a mockumentary about the making of a mockumentary?

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