Werner Herzog was one of the most innovative and influential filmmakers of the twentieth century, and while much of his body of work is challenging and engrossing, "Even Dwarfs Started Small" is trying and generally repugnant by design. The film explores the differences between physical and mental freedom with a cast of little people. This is no "Terror of Tiny Town," though, as is clear from the very opening featuring chicken cannibalism to a deliberately grating score (that reappears throughout the film.) Essentially the small inmates have taken over their asylum, while one of their number, Pepe (Gerd Gickel,) is tied to a chair and held hostage by the administrator in charge of the institution.
The film is short on linear plot and long on symbolism. It's very difficult to identify with or appreciate any of the characters (other than the two blind men who are ironically the smartest and only productive people in the institution) as they are universally loathsome and despicable, which gets to the point of the inhumanity of incarceration. The problem is that while revolution against inhuman conditions might be a plausible reason to identify with the inmates, their behavior is far more destructive and irrational than the rules of the institution itself, leading inescapably to the observation that some people aren't free because they cannot exist within any kind of reasonable societal norms. These antisocial tendencies are omnipresent, from scab eating to the serial taunting of Hombre (Helmut Döring,) the smallest of the inmates (leading to a wholly unnecessary subplot about attempted conjugal relations.) Without getting into too much detail, the inmates take over and immediately destroy all that's beautiful and good in their limited world: they burn flowers, commit wanton destruction on a palm tree, smash china, pointlessly kill a sow with piglets, and crucify a monkey (!) out of rebellion without consideration of their actions or their consequences (obviously more incarceration for the petty tyrants.) Food fights and gross attention deficit issues (they steal a car, fail to use it productively, and immediately steal a motorcycle, which suffers a similar pointless fate) underscore the total lack of civility at the institution, and makes the decision to institutionalize these people seem cogent, rational, and wholly defensible.
Distractions are everywhere (e.g. the subplot about the lost shoe that will just not go away,) but within all the malaise there are moments of genius. I was interested that when the inmates finally hotwired the car which could have allowed them to escape, they chose not to. Even they understood that they have no place in society, and instead trash the car which they rig to run in circles in the courtyard, paralleling not only their lives, but dovetailing with the gruesome footage of the chicken carrying a dead mouse back and forth because she doesn't know what to do with it or where it can be safely consumed. They make the car into a toy for breaking dishes, and in so doing abandon their only chance of escape, which is their only hope. The chickens feeding on themselves was an over-the-head symbolic bashing, and was another brilliant if repellant image. Even more insightful into the lives of the inmates is the scene with the bug collection. Insects are dressed as various members of a wedding party ("This is the grasshopper as the groom...", "I've got a spider with eight legs here; I was going to knit it a sweater.") While I was particularly amused by the beetle in the top hat as the best man, the bigger point of them controlling these bugs in their own little insect box was striking as they were doing it as a clear proxy for the control over their own lives that was absolutely lacking.
While much of the lugubriously-paced film is manic destruction, the most disturbing character interactions occur between Pepe and the headmaster, who alternately berates the inmates and tries to explain and justify institutional decision making in a variety of face-saving diatribes. Pepe's response is creepy and uniform throughout: he just smiles and laughs maniacally. Reason is clearly a commodity lacking on either side of the desk. While this is most likely viewed as an indictment of prisons, it really demonstrates that certain people cannot live freely, either mentally or physically. Most of the dialogue is stultifying, but there are moments of brilliance there also ("Before you are hanged you must comb your hair.") The conclusion is somewhat ambiguous as to what happens to Pepe (watch it yourself and see) but the headmaster eventually goes insane, concluding the film yelling at a tree accusingly, while the inmates taunt a camel.
I am genuinely mixed on how to appraise this movie. It's far longer than necessary and contains much to loathe, particularly the violence against animals. It's never OK to torture animals, and even though this was made long before the animal rights movement started, the brutalization of animals for no purpose other than to demonstrate sadism and destruction is morally repugnant and is the single biggest negative in my ultimate rating. On the other hand, the symbolism in the film is undeniably brilliant and the cinematography and sound creates the desired claustrophobic discomfort admirably. This is not one of Herzog's standout pieces, and is definitely not for the faint of heart. Compositionally and thematically this is an interesting exploration of man's inhumanity to man and what it means to be civilized, but the free-flowing rampaging and pointless brutality make this a real challenge to endure.
The DVD is in black and white with excellent subtitles, and the picture is generally sharp though it's obviously an older movie. The sound quality is quite good (though you might not enjoy what you are hearing, especially the musical interludes.) The disc comes with a commentary by Herzog, Crispin Glover, and Norman Hill. I might have understood more about Herzog's directorial choices if I had seen it, but it wouldn't play on either of my DVD players unfortunately. I would have loved to see it; maybe Herzog could have convinced me that more of his genius was onscreen than I detected on my own. If you are a Herzog collector or fan, this is indispensable; likewise those disposed to avant-garde cinema or prison trauma films might want to see this. For all others understand that the audience that will truly appreciate (much less enjoy) this film is, much like the cast, extremely small.