Review: Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970)


As typified by the contextual abstraction of his second feature film, the 1970 release Even Dwarfs Started Small, Werner Herzog has always channeled his works through elisions of bald cultural depictions, favoring to evoke societal arbitraries, absurdities even, by presenting them in a light that’s germane in its desultoriness. Later in his oeuvre, the German-born director would further build upon such conventionally defiant gestures, as even his films with varying degrees of documentarian interest – such as Fata Morgana, Lessons in Darkness, or even the final chapter of this year’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams – seemed to be conceived within an unseen, aeriform dimension between reality and the phantasmal. Rather than let the perceived actualities of life, and moreover art and film, dictate his pieces’ narrative and ideological unfurling, Herzog tends to revel in circumstantial hypotheticals, as he allows his cinema to underscore our increasingly evolved need of contextual frameworks for our social and survivalistic drives, no matter how silly (religion) or inconveniencing (bureaucracy) they may ultimately be.

Never have these notions of civility’s hindrances and frivolities been elucidated with as much conceptual amenity as they are, as far as the filmmaker’s canon is concerned, in Even Dwarfs Started Small. Employing a cast comprised entirely of little people, Herzog posits how the manufactured entities of humankind are but tangential imprisonments when held up to the natural order of things. Just as the characters come to difficulty managing the architectural impediments stemming from an often-comical disparity in scale – that is, the dynamic between environment and its inhabitants is not one of corporeal compliment but exacting limitations – so too does the film underscore the disconnect between biological impulse and synthetic praxes. (One of the more telling scenes shows an administrative figure outright commanding a tree to lower its limb, as if our human cantankerousness can somehow overpower environmental agency.) As he later did in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Herzog rhymes the seemingly-random-but-instinctively-driven patterns analogous to animal behavior with the practiced throes of etiquette, exposing a certain cruelty in not only our handling of the physical world but also in our overarching interpersonal approach to life itself. The tonal accumulation of this, Herzog’s pageant of civilized absurdities, reads as an apropos mix of our species emotional spectrum, a kaleidoscopic catalogue ranging from visceral delirium to cerebral horror – it’s all just a matter of perspective and personal alignment.

Herzog’s symbolism here is effusive but fluid, and his usage of quotidian totems as stand-ins for social banisters accords some interesting commentary concerning the cyclical (as is the case with the ghost-ridden car continuously looping about a courtyard) and fleetingly material (the easily devastated décor of ceramics and flowers alike) nature of our defining cultural constructs. But because Herzog’s picture, by design, eschews the entrenched constituents of the everyday, there’s little in way of an organic ideological build. Even Dwarfs Started Small is a film that narratively caters to, and at times extols, our innate longing for caprice and freedom, but this deconstruction of familiar societal and cinematic forms ignores the progressive climbs of both logic and nature. The images and ideas of the film exist in a calculated, quasi-amebic state, insofar as they enter and exit the frames and setpieces as if the work, and by extension civilized being as a whole, was some sort of tapestry-like Ouroboros. Herzog’s focus is in tokenly gesticulating broad societal shortcomings – the confines of class stratification, how order is to be favored over felicity, our use of violence as it extends beyond the purposes of survival, and the ruthless lengths we’re willing to go to for novelty’s sake, to name a few – which makes for an apposite arrangement but a flaccid exegesis. Even Dwarfs Start Small is best held as an ideological collage, one that’s hewn from the same chaotic means through which, supposedly, social harmony is derived. In this, the film achieves a niche worth, as it aptly presents contemporary life as something translucently systematic: our existence is oppressive and rulebound, yes, but we still can-and-should enjoy any diffusive bits of mirth that manage to pass through our immuring social membranes.

68/100 - Even Dwarfs Start Small is best held as an ideological collage, one that’s hewn from the same chaotic means through which, supposedly, social harmony is derived.

Joe Galm

Pennsylvania Film Critic. Even as my tastes evolve and the breadth of my cinematic experience increases,I’ll always see film as existing in a state of reciprocity with our perceptions of both life and the world at large. My writing tends to reflect this, as I excavate any universalities that I can find within works and wax generic on their applications within contemporary social and artistic arenas. I also like loquaciousness and revel in having fun with the language; it doesn’t always work.