Like Scottish food, Werner Herzog’s work always smells like a dare. If you need a test to see if you’re badass enough for it, Even Dwarfs Started Small is The Bar.
His second feature, Even Dwarfs is spectacular and confounding. It lacks the oppressive artiness of his nature documentaries (Fata Morgana) or the hilarious dourness of his inky-midnight-of-the-soul tragedies (Aguirre: The Wrath of God). Herzog is fascinated by our compulsion towards defiance and the utter futility of that urge. Shooting yourself in the foot may or may not be an instinctive act—the jury’s out.
True to the title, Even Dwarfs is cast completely with little people. As such, this story of a reformatory overthrow nods at Tod Browning’s Freaks and Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct in turns. Herzog knows you’re not comfortable laughing, even when his characters are deliberately funny or accidentally adorable, and he uses your discomfort, so tread cautiously around matters of “exploitation” because the actors aren’t the ones wrestling with complicity.
Rule breaking landed these mini-marauders in the reformatory (though specifics are undeclared), so when they lock their headmaster in his office for a day it’s a gangster’s paradise…with no endgame whatsoever. Their “liberation” isn’t fueled by revenge; no one is facilitating a coup. The defiance has no greater purpose than to rip shit up and laugh about it, exerting a power that helps the inmates nothing. The fact we can’t share their glee accentuates its senselessness. If we could have some feeling about the menacing, high-pitched cackle of Hombre, the smallest of the inmates, maybe we could see the violence of the escapees as some climactic release. Instead, Hombre’s laugh is just an auditory punctuation mark, an ambiguous and off-putting comma inserted, perhaps, to improve syntax. Well, the film’s impeccable grammar doesn’t make reading it easier.
The film’s most accessible scene is also its most unnervingly comic. Like curious children, the inmates lock Hombre and the smallest girl in a bedroom for a forced “honeymoon,” a seven-minutes-in-heaven scenario with no redeeming time limit. As Hombre dissents the girl is quiet, maybe bemused. Hombre politely invite the girl to the bed, then makes feeble attempts to join her. Ultimately, he stacks nudie mags into a makeshift step to climb to the bed but even that fails. The two peruse the pinup pages, commenting on the nude girls’ “pretty eyes,” foreign to any motivation to look at porn. These guys don’t get “the birds and the bees” at all.
Nature is another order eligible for debasing. When the escapees talk over their options as “free people,” they reveal the institute’s reformation policy and their daily chores—from which they’ve learned nothing. “Feeding those shitty animals. Watering those flowerpots? What’s it all for?” Yet, structure isn’t all they’re rallying against. Their behaviors occasionally look freeing (the destruction of a typewriter by a delivery truck recalls the anti-Xerox catharsis of Office Space) but as that truck does donuts and narrowly misses the office tool, you have a second to observe your own anxiety. You worry for these characters, but their recklessness drags behind it a giant, mangled question mark: WHY?
Herzog doesn’t answer, and probably thinks the question is stupid. I hear he worked as a valet before he made films. According to lore, a drunk demanded his keys and Herzog drove him home. Once the drunk fell asleep, Herzog turned the wheel so the car would drive donuts until it ran out of gas. It’s like saying, “fuck you” in a slower, meaner language; German has the longest words.
Despite its lack a narrative trajectory—or story at all—Even Dwarfs is stunningly concise. It has to be: you couldn’t stand it for longer. Maybe Herzog’s films distrust surfaces, but he has great faith in the image’s power to bewilder. He especially likes puncturing the expectation that nature is somehow holy. “The pig is dead,” an inmate yells off screen. “How did you do it?” one asks. “We won’t say.” The sow kicks on its side, aggravating her eight piglets as they attempt to nurse. It’s unclear if she’s protectively pushing the piglets away or jerking as she bleeds out—the film’s black and white photography renders every dark puddle into something dangerous. The inmates watch impassively as the piglets suckle, wrestle and fall asleep against their still, cooling mother. This information is somehow neutral. Or the onlookers are sociopaths.
There are no idyllic scenes on this property, which is by all accounts, quite lovely. Chickens suffer a lot but they’re also profane on their own terms. One hen finds a dead mouse and parades it around like a useless prize. (I’ve seen shorter rape scenes.) Indeed, the first inhabitant we meet on the grounds is a rooster…pecking a dead hen. It eats the feathers that rise from the flattened carcass. After you flashback to 100 Gary Larson comics, you’re struck by the depravity. This repellent vision is a vague thesis statement: for the rest of the film you’ll see creatures in stages of momentary amusement and total disregard and this vision blasphemes order. The inmates have operated under the thumb of their now contained Head Master until the film began rolling (note verb tense) and at a loss for his demands (read: structure) they run amuck. Their best bet is to burn the place down…but then where would they sleep?
Yet the film leaves you with no place to reckon with your feelings; we never laugh with them even if we, like them, “started small.” Hombre, the smallest, is the first to speak in the film and his sentiment is introspective: “My ears are ringing. Someone is thinking about me.” It’s for this we should spell Werner’s name Hurtzog. (I bet I’m not the first to make that joke.) In one swipe he hints at an inner life his surfaces defiantly conceal—is Herzog’s defiance also futile or is he special?
Nothing here is a lie, per se. If some part of you marvels at the spectacle, you’re only human. Katy Perry videos intuit our cravings for bombastic visual spasms, too (Even Katy Perry Started Small?). The only real difference is that Herzog forces your hand; not content to please you with prettiness he accosts you with dubious “meaning.”
In the final moment, Hombre stumbles upon a camel: they stand together, two mysterious expatriates. Is it a nod to the circus? A reminder of freak shows? A celebration of uniqueness? Like the camel, Hombre is silent and seeks cues. Like Hombre, the camel’s instinct is submissive. The dromedary genuflects: the posture permits Hombre to mount him but also resembles reverence. Herzog “explained” later he didn’t know why he needed a camel for the film’s final moment, he only knew he needed a camel.
Even the title is a dare.