Even Dwarfs Started Small… Werner Herzog’s Absurdist Satire

You wait years for a review of a film featuring a cast comprised entirely of little people, and then two come along in a week.

As previously discussed on The Reprobate, The Terror Of Tiny Town was the first film to use a cast comprised entirely of little people. The choice was undoubtedly a gimmick on the part of producer Jed Buell, especially considering the fact that he had produced Harlem On The Prairie, the first western with an all-black cast the previous year, but I don’t believe this fact should dissuade any movie fan with an interest in the strange of offbeat from having a look at either film, regardless of the original intention. The director Sam Newfield was one of the most prolific filmmakers of the early sound era with The Terror Of Tiny Town being one of 15 films he made in 1938. I guess the question is what would happen if someone with a unique vision took Jed Buell’s gimmick and tried to do something interesting with it… someone like Werner Herzog?

After winning Germany’s National Film Award for his début feature Signs Of Life in 1968, Herzog took the cash prize and used the money to shoot three films that would set the template for everything he would go on to direct in the future, strange visionary movies often made in the most hostile of conditions. There was the surreal Fata Morgana, which mixed documentary footage of mirages captured in the Sahara with a voiceover about Mayan creation myths and songs by Leonard Cohen; the straight documentary The Flying Doctors Of East Africa; and Even Dwarfs Started Small, which he filmed on the island of Lanzarote with its barren landscape scarred by volcanic eruptions.

The film is set in a mental institution in South America and begins at the end. Hombre, one of the inmates, is being interrogated by unseen authority figures who are trying to discover who was responsible for starting a riot that resulted in vandalism, a sexual assault and the apparently fatal wounding of one of the inmates. Though he refuses to cooperate with the investigation, Hombre’s memories of the riot reveal to the audience what actually occurred. Angered by the poor conditions in the institution, the inmates began a rebellion against the Instructor who, fearing for his life, has barricaded himself in his office with Pepe, another of the inmates who he has tied to a chair. It begins with food fights and damage to property but soon escalates to the killing of animals, the burning of plants and mock religious ceremonies involving a crucified monkey. As the mob becomes increasingly fixated on the Instructor who they hold responsible for their plight, the attacks on his barricaded office become increasingly violent, and when they threaten to burn him out, the Instructor responds by threatening to harm Pepe who has effectively become his hostage.

Even Dwarfs Started Small is one of the strangest films ever made by a major director. Like many of Werner Herzog’s later works, it’s a film about outsiders in conflict with their wider environment, but told as an absurdist satire. The inmates’ rebellion is focused mainly on the destruction of property, something usually thought of as desirable, but here it is rendered monstrous in relation to the stature of the actors. The inversion of the idea of what constitutes ‘normal’ echoes Todd Browning’s Freaks, but Herzog goes even further. During the riot, a car pulls up and a woman gets out to ask for directions, but while the car is built for someone of normal proportions, the woman driving is also played by a little person and needs to use a box to get in and out of the vehicle. There is also the possibility that the unseen officials interrogating Hombre at the beginning of the film who we assumed to be of normal size are also little people. It suggests a reality in which the entire populace is of diminutive stature, but they exist in a world that has only been built to accommodate people of normal size. In this context the wholesale rejection of essentially useless material goods by the inhabitants of the asylum makes sense, even suggesting that their destructive rampage is the only positive course of action open to them. It’s also a pretty extreme metaphor for how people generally have become out of step with their environment. The film was not liked at the time, but the central idea plays much better when viewed today as an allegory for the madness of the world we live in.

Werner Herzog would go on to be one of the key directors of the seventies, but for most of the cast, this would be their only film. The ones that did work again only appeared in a few movies, but they were remarkable movies. Helmut Döring had a small role in Herzog’s The Enigma Of Kasper Hauser, Paul Glauer had a part in Ulrike Ottinger’s Freak Orlando, Gerhard Maerz was in Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s epic Ludwig: Requiem For A Virgin King, and Pepi Hermine who plays ‘The President’ also played the President of the United States in the Robert Downey Sr. satire Putney Swope, made around the same time as Herzog’s film.

Even Dwarfs Started Small was released on VHS in 1991 by Palace Pictures and on DVD in 2005 as part of a boxset from Anchor Bay, but both of these UK releases were cut by just over two minutes to remove a cockfight and a brief shot of the crucified monkey struggling to free itself. Even with the cuts the ‘PG’ certificate issued by the BBFC was fairly lenient. Anchor Bay’s region 1 DVD released in the US was uncut, and this same version is currently available on blu ray in the US as part of Shout Factory’s 13 disc set simply entitled Herzog: The Collection. The uncut version is also available on Youtube right now, so a diminutive double bill with The Terror Of Tiny Town is just a few clicks away.


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