Like a novelist practicing with short stories before attempting the grand statement of a first novel, the singular German filmmaker Werner Herzog made a number of documentaries and short-subject fiction films before mounting his first two fictional features, Signs of Life (1968) and this strange picture. Yet because he followed up these intimate projects with the ambitious Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), it’s tempting to look at early projects including Even Dwarfts Stated Small as the byproducts of apprenticeship. For while Even Dwarfs Started Small contains some of Herzog’s signature themes and is suffused with his idiosyncratic style, it’s trifling compared to the powerful allegories he made later.
Plus, truth be told, Even Dwarfs Started Small is a gimmick picture, because it’s a black-and-white oddity featuring only little people. The limitations of gimmickry become evident as Even Dwafts Started Small trudges along: It’s hard to get emotionally invested in a fictional feature populated exclusively by nonprofessional actors playing interchangeable roles. There’s something bold about the way Herzog asks viewers to plunge into the deepest waters of his imagination, but boldness only goes so far.
Set on a remote island off the northern coast of Africa, the picture depicts a rebel uprising at an asylum or some other sort of institution. The gist is that the inmates/patients/residents dislike the way they’re treated, so they cut off communication with the outside world and lay siege to administrators until chaos reigns. Despite copious amounts of dialogue, much of which is deliberately cryptic and/or peculiar, so it’s never especially clear just what’s happening, though the film seems to take an antiauthoritarian stance. (For instance, rebels toss rocks at an administrator while he speaks to them from a high rooftop.)
Mostly, the threadbare plot provides Herzog with an excuse to capture weird images. A camel too groggy or ill to stand on its forelegs. Rebels shoving a car down a seemingly bottomless hole in the ground. A driverless vehicle spinning in circles. A man holding a tube of cream over his crotch and spurting the cream onto a nearby woman. And so much giggling. At times, it feels like half this film’s screen time is devoted to shots of characters laughing idiotically. Herzog has never been afraid to stop a story dead so he can linger on some odd tangent, but Even Dwarfts Started Small is nothing but tangents, and the lack of a larger purpose renders the whole enterprise somewhat pointless, beyond the inherent value of putting onscreen people whose life experiences are rarely explored in popular culture.
Even Dwarfs Started Small: FUNKY