Even Dwarfs Started Small or A Cult Movie I hate.
After watching famed German director Werner Herzog’s 1970 black and white film Even Dwarfs Started Small, I can only hate it. I have waited a few days before writing about it to absorb it. I still dislike the film, but I think I can now talk about it without a long diatribe.
The Plot of Even Dwarfs Started Small
The film centers around an institution where all inhabitants suffer from Dwarfism (everyone in the movie is a little person) and are held against their will. The institution (not sure what type it is) is on a rocky lava-formed island. The inmates soon rebel against authority and with that, senseless chaos follows. The inmates continuously giggle at their perceived freedom. However, their freedom is wasted. They set random fires. The rebels torment two blind residents living on the grounds (the only interesting and sympathetic characters in the film). They break dishes and have a food fight. There is a lot of animal cruelty like a one-legged chicken being peck upon by another chicken. They crucify a monkey, have a cockfight and kill a pig. All the chaos seems to be an intent to liberate one of their own held by the director, but it honestly seems to be without actual purpose.
What is it?
Simply, it’s allegory, whether viewed as a political/philosophical/religious allegory or as a distorted display of willful deviance. Hertzog chooses to use shocking images combined with the viewer’s boredom from extended overplayed scenes to make his surreal point. There is also a claim of humor mixed in, but I did not find it in the film. This is all used to tell a tale of failed revolutionary movements, opportunities wasted in the 60’s and in Germany’s Socialist Movement. There is the point that although we crave freedom, we often squander it. Freedom can corrupt us without direction and purpose. They never actually sought true liberation from the facility.
There is an interpretation of God and man. A character referenced but never seen is called the Principal. His return to chaos is feared by the director. He may be God returning to an evil world who has forgotten him. In their nihilistic behavior, I see a lack of compassion, They also destroy the world in his absence, such as technology (destroying phone lines, a typewriter and a truck) and nature (burning plants, cutting down trees and animal cruelty). Finally, I won’t even need to explain the image of the crucified Monkey.
When we behave, nobody cares. But when we are bad nobody forgets. — The character Hombre
Could I be wrong? Of course, but I still do not like it regardless. My main issue with the film is the use of animal cruelty and treating the actors (little people) as if they are children. I see it as exploitation. Hertzog says he was inspired by Tod Browning’s Freaks (a film we discuss in an earlier article). They are nothing alike. Freaks shows the circus sideshow characters as human, adult and with respect. There is none of this in Even Dwarfs Started Small. They are often buffoonish. This is where I stop to swallow my diatribe, but it is apparent he thinks he is smarter than the audience. Just because it is perverse for the sake of being disturbing with a surreal meaning, doesn’t mean it is good.
I will end with Hertzog’s own words. Herzog says on the DVD version’s audio commentary, “I saw the whole film as a continuous nightmare in front of my eyes,” I did too, but not as designed.