Friday, November 30, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL (1969)

Written, Produced, and Directed by Werner Herzog
Cinematography by Thomas Mauch
Original Music by Florian Fricke
Film Editing by Beate Mainka-Jellinghaus

Starring
Helmut Doring 
Paul Glauer
Gisela Hertwig
Hertel Minkner
Gertrud Piccini
Marianne Saar
Brigitte Saar
Gerd Gickel
Erna Gschwendtner
Gerhard Maerz
Alfredo Piccini
Erna Smollarz
Lajos Zsarnoczay
Pepi Hermine

In a bleak land, a man in a suit barricades himself into his office. The man in the suit ties another man to a chair as a hostage. The hostage just snickers to himself  as though he's playing some prank. Outside the gated  building which contains the office, a group of seven or eight people demand the release of the hostage. One woman demands that she get her shoe back which, I guess, she left inside the gated building. I get the impression that she lost it in some kind of rush to leave the building, but I'm not sure. The protesters throw stuff at the building and jeer and make jokes. The man in the suit threatens that he'll do something terrible to the hostage. The overall impression is that this is some sort of institution for the insane, maybe the criminally insane, but it's never entirely clear. One is left with a "lunatics running the asylum" vibe, but things become even stranger.

For one thing, the place isn't portrayed as being in any particular geographical locale. It's a German language film, yes, but no references are made to German cities or history or society or politics. The movie seems to take place in some desolate region where the institution is the only human outpost for miles and miles. No clear reasons are given for the uprising (if that's what's going on) of the inmates (if they are in fact inmates).

The institution is possibly meant to be self-sufficient. There's a barn with chickens, pigs, and animal feed. There are also plants, possibly a garden. The institution is surrounded by a barren, rocky landscape with only a few dead, twisted trees sticking up out of the ground. The institution seems to be isolated from any kind of larger civilization. However, there is a road running by the place, and at one point a woman driver stops to ask for directions. Maybe the institution isn't some isolated human outpost in a desolate world at all. Maybe it's just the people at the institution who've come to see themselves as apart from the world.

The rebellious inmates tease each other, have food fights, and torment a pair of stick-sword wielding blind men. The two blind men even duel each other with their wooden swords. It made me think of the blind swordsman Zatoichi--and then it hit me: did Zatoichi ever fight another swordsman who was blind? I still need to find the answer to that.

At one point, the inmates try to journey across the rocky wasteland, but they seem discouraged, and go back to the institution.

Potted flowers are lit on fire. A car is made to move in an endless circle with no driver at the wheel. Chickens and pigs are killed for fun and not for food. The inmates threaten to burn down the gated building, the barn, the whole place.

The climax of the film comes when one of the characters decides to just run away from the institution, until they encounter a dead, twisted tree. This character confronts the tree, accusing it of pointing rudely, and refuses to budge from the standoff until the tree stops pointing. I was left with the impression that this character and that tree were going to be in some sort of stalemate for all time if that's what it takes.

To say that Even Dwarfs Started Small depicts a world gone mad is not helpful. Yes, I had those words on my mind throughout the movie, but what happens on screen also seems to suggest that certain kinds of  conflict, by their very nature, demand the consent of all parties. If someone decides they no longer believe in the overall situation, then they might just be able to leave, to run off into the horizon. But you would probably have to be insane to do that.

All of the actors in the movie are dwarfs. The world of the movie seems too large for the people who inhabit it. It's as though all the people who were bigger than the dwarfs died and left them with a world filled with buildings and technology built at a scale beyond convenient use. It's a scale with a certain kind of cruelty involved, and maybe that's the source of the madness which engulfs everyone.

Even Dwarfs Started Small begins with an interrogation scene which suggests that, at some point, a larger authority of some kind eventually intervened and squashed the inmates's rebellion. But the movie never returns to this opening scene. We are left with a framing device where part of the frame has been obliterated. It's as though the madness of the inmates has even reached back through time, to the beginning of the movie, and obliterated the intervention of the authorities. Madness confounds all cause and effect. There's no reinstatement of the status quo, and one is left with feelings both exciting and unsettling.

Even Dwarfs Started Small trailer:
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