Monday, August 31, 2009

Movie Notes: Even Dwarfs Started Small (1969)

I am rather fond of movies that mess with the viewer's head. I don't mean movies that have a twist. Don't talk to me about how The Matrix blew your mind, or how you were amazed by the latest M. Night Shyamalan movie in which you discover at the end that his wife is dead and he's really making out with the plumber. No, I'm talking about the sort of movies in which you ask yourself, "Am I really seeing this?" and it's a serious question. Maybe you're not actually seeing this, and instead you're watching Fantasy Island, and the lamp isn't talking to you, and maybe it's time to seek medical attention.

Even Dwarfs Started Small is one of those movies. I'm not entirely sure how to describe it, actually. Maybe this works best: A black and white, German film from 1969, in which a reform institution is overthrown in a revolution; all of the actors are midgets. That pretty much captures it, although most of the events in the film happen in seemingly random order, much like a dream. The head of the institution is punishing a popular inmate, the other inmates are angry, and the scenes become increasingly chaotic. At the point in which the flowers are all on fire and the midgets are parading around a monkey tied to a crucifix, I thought, "Okay, Werner, what are you doing here?!"

A number of people were offended by the fact that the film is grotesquely nightmarish and the entire cast is little people. They felt that Herzog was mocking the actors. This reading misses the point by quite a bit. The characters are filmed as if they were average height; it's just the world around them that is oversized and out of proportion to the human beings who occupy it. There is something innately hostile about the institutional buildings, which most resemble a farm for people. The director character is a wonderful picture of angry authority. At the end, he has lost his mind and is screaming at a tree branch to stop pointing at him, at once.

The film actually works as both a nightmare and a fairly shrewd parody of both systems of authority and the revolutions that seek to upend them. Some radical leftists complained about the film's portrayal of the revolution, which ends in the destruction of a society and not much else, but I think there's something despairing about it. Herzog resents the way that experts with police support seek to control us, while having little faith in movements that attempt to fight the power. There's a certain cynicism about human nature, as expressed in his two recurring images (which pop up in his other films) of the mindless meanness of chickens and a driverless truck left to run in endless circles.

I do think Herzog leaves room for a sort of ecstatic revelation. Most of the soundtrack music is religious chanting from more "primitive" cultures. There is some hope that all of this chaos will lead to some sort of transcendence. But there is no happy ending and the film ends with the disturbing image of a little man laughing himself nearly to death.

*Note: For those who are curious, "dwarfs" is the appropriate spelling when describing actual people, while "dwarves" is the accepted spelling for the fantasy characters.

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