Even Dwarfs Started Small (Germany, 1971, Werner Herzog)
Wherein Ben and I get tangled up in blue. And I go first, for a change.
A fucking genius. Herzog, that is. I've spent the last coupla days sampling the great works of this artist.
Even Dwarves Started Small may be the film that Bela Tarr wanted to make, and in a quarter of the screen time. Stunning. Herzog himself says that while others contend that Aguirre is his best film, he's convinced that EDSS will be the film that stands the test of time.
He might be onto something. Gobsmackingly good.
Uh-huh. Picked it up at Pic-a-Flic. And even though it is a nightmare, this will not be another Darwin's Nightmare. Uh-huh. It's taking all the good manners I can muster to let you go first. But as we learned the hard way with Satantango, my mustered manners grow musty mighty fast. I'll turn of this machine now, go to the grocery store and watch Jaws with my kids before checking my email again.
Well hell, man, I don't want you to burst a blood vessel, so let me toss a few morsols down for you to chew on. Or spit up.
Where the hell are we? Is this some isolated, remote lunatic asylum or penal colony? Again and again we return to Becket and Kafka in our discussions of these absurdist filmmakers. It's impossible (and in some ways irresponsible) not to. The film's roots are deep in the existential nightmare, its parable-like qualities so clearly influenced by Becket, Kafka and Camus. Herzog must have known he was onto something when he discovered that the film had pissed EVERYONE off. The film licensing agency in Germany in essence banned the film, so Herzog had to rent out theatres himself in order to get it some public screenings. The left saw it as a mockery of the global struggle to overcome oppression, while the right saw it as anti-authoritarian attack on the establishment, and the church sensed the film's basically bleak and godless universe.
So, what to make of Even Dwarfs Started Small? That crazy, angelic anthem that opens film sets an eerie tone which is immediately juxtaposed to the images of dwarfs rushing around like madmen. They've apparently seized control of the institution, and are holding the director hostage in his own office. In a Python-esque piece of absurdity, they taunt the director and toss bric-a-brac in his direction that never threatens to come near him. Indeed, at first the need to destroy the world's false order is presented as inevitable, and liberating. The dwarves clearly have a blast wrecking the world that's been imposed upon them, and we are invited to share in their glee.
But things turn sour; the anarchic energy of the rebellion disintegrates into a chaotic impulse towards complete annihilation. The attack on the blind dwarves, the truck, circling mindlessly and endlessly, the burning of the flowers, the crucifixion of the monkey. The rebellion becomes a purely destructive force, matching the world we live in, which Herzog clearly sees and diseased and entropic. The world is too big for us, and our self-importance is mocked by the reality that we are outmatched. Everything we've done, all we've created, whether it is a social structure, religious belief, technological advances, artistic endeavors, all these efforts to make sense of, or provide an orderliness to, the world are doomed to frustration and ultimately failure. Indeed, in the end, the director himself goes made and berates and dead branch for pointing its finger at him. Though Dwarfs has a more fable-like quality, this moment is clearly anticipatory of the climax of Aguirre.
And then we have the chickens. Those goddamned cannibal chickens, which tell us that there is something inherently wrong about existence. The universe is just fundamentally out of alignment. And at the heart of it all is an essential savagery, a nihilistic core. These images may seem hallucinogenic or nightmarish, but they are tangible and real, as the chickens really were eating each other, and that poor one-legged chicken was being targeted as the next victim.
The giant dwarf (oxymoron intended) hog-tied and laughing feverishly throughout most of the film seems a significant image, and on that may signal Herzog's intentions. The head lunatic in this asylum berates the fellow for getting caught. And in response the "large" fellow simply snickers. And giggles. And chortles. Indeed, the film ends on a prolonged scene of hyena-like laughter, as the smallest of the dwarves cackles hysterically as a camel wages a losing struggle to get off its knees and back onto its feet. Is this Herzog's dim candle of hope? That the only response to the impossibility of the human condition is insane laughter?
This is about as despairing as a vision can get and still involve laughter, no?
Oh shit, I forgot to mention the murdered sow up there in paragraph three!
Oh, thank Christ you remembered the killing of the pig! Just think how nice and Disney-like EDSS would be without that particular feature. Oh yes, murder that porker, please do, because that's just what we need to make this the delightful picture we were so hoping to show the kids at the next birthday party.
If Satyricon is Fellini on mushrooms channelling Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dali, EDSS is a Ringling Brothers-on-bad-acid production of Lord Of The Flies. This is a nightmare from the depths of the unconscious, a too-vivid vision or inescapable atmosphere, complete with absurdist normalcy based on the sheer recurring presence of otherwise freakishness, a severe hallucination with its own logic of illogical that eventually establishes its own terrain of what does and does not fit. The bad news is, nothing fits.
In this film, Herzog presents a model of absolute alienation strictly according to one concrete signifier - proportion. Disproportion, that is. In more than one review recently, I have cautioned against treating scale as determinative rather than manifesting something else at work. I touch on this again now to stress that Herzog is not merely entering into relative size simply as a matter of scale out of whack. This is superficial quantification, a momentary mishap for Alice when she takes the shinking pill. EDSS enters into relative size as a fully developed qualitative problematic and permanent circumstance; yes, as a statement - however psycho-evocative and artistically irrational - about the human condition. Of course, the way Herzog conveys this bad dream of everything being out of proportion is by making dwarfs literally stand-in for regular size people. He puts us in a universe wherein midgets are not "normal," no, this implies an alternative. He rather simply posits them. They are the universalized form of the human being.
Now, the way these people behave, why they behave the way they do, what is motivating them, their relationship to their environment, what the minimal plot could possibly mean - all of this upsettingly weird in the nth degree. But beneath of of this seemingly random perversion, what is sustained throughout the film is the misfit between these people and the very world produced by these people. We are desperate to believe that these Lilliputions have been condemned to some hell produced by some evil Yahoos. But the latter do not exist. The midgets are definitely in hell, but it is of their own making. They are confronted by the world in which they are supposed to live as entirely given and in this confrontation they act out their alienation. The world is Papa Bear's bed Goldilocks first tries, except this time there are no Mama Bear and Baby Bear alternatives. Indeed, there is a scene in EDSS showing the smallest of them all attempting to get onto a bed and being utterly unable to do so. And door knobs cannot be turned. And so on. And even when a thing can be handled physically, the rationality of the thing, the inherently recognizable purpose for which it was made is consistently violated with lunatic intensity. Unlike Goldilocks, the dwarfs have not lost their way and merely need to make their way home to some doll's house that is just right for them. They are in the real world that they have created for themselves. They are home.
The artificial - as in literally man-made - aspect of the disporportionate world in EDSS is the key to the film and what differentiates it from Aguirre. In Aguirre, the confrontation is between civilization and wilderness, or more properly, between human nature and all the rest of nature. Human artifice is presented as anthropocentric domination as such, represented in commercial and military megalomania bent on enslaving the primitive and domesticating the non-human. This will to power only succeeds in turning in on itself to become personal insanity. You can almost see the weeds growing into Aguirre's sun-stroked brain as the force of the organic refuses to be tamed by man. In EDSS, on the contrary, the confrontation is not between civilization and wilderness but rather between civilization and itself; more properly, between human nature and it's works. The setting is terrifyingly abstracted from the organic. The antithesis of the jungle in Aguirre, in EDSS the surrounding environment is inorganically barren, a landscape of dead rock. The only life hanging around in EDSS is fenced in by animal husbandry and gardening; in short, domesticated by man and incorporated into agriculture. The one exception is a tree standing outside the grounds of the compound that is torched and toppled, inexplicably to be sure, but on the other hand, this is basically the fate of everything in EDSS. My point is that man does not confront nature in EDSS as there is no nature to confront. Man confronts man in EDSS; hence I speak of alienation. The abuse of living things that have been appropriated as human belongings is but an extension of human alienation from human products. No wonder, the cannibalistic chickens seem to make sense. This is not the brutality of wild nature as it would be in Aguirre. This feels like a perfectly resonable metaphor in EDSS, more intelligible than many of the other proceedings.
For Marx, the domination of dead, objectified labour over living, subjective labour was human alienation based in the ownership of the former by a class in the form of private property. Sarte agreed with this but did not reduce the problem to this economic base in his existential treatment of class relations. He took the problem of individual consciousness in mass society in the 20th Centurey much more seriously than Marx did in the 19th and in so doing he was concerned about the all the institutional manifestations of capital and the state that systemically made up a kind of mental bloc in the thinking of the supposedly free agent. In this theoretical construct, Sarte puts forward his concept of the practico-inert, i.e., everything man-made initially intended to facilitate human affairs now standing as an obstruction to social action. Taken in its more trivial political terms, this was a critique of bureaucracy in general and the Soviet apparatus in particular. But grasped in its fuller political theory terms, supposedly revolutionary development was always in danger of being absorbed by the status quo because the philosophic negative point is that our own creations stand immovably outside us after we have objectified our subjectivity in "other things." I mention all of this not to suggest that Herzog entertains any sort of revolutionary political perspective in EDSS - or any of his work for that matter - but to interpret the film as a psychotic portrayal of the negativity of the practico-inert. We are midgets trying to get onto a bed we have built too big for us to get on. The too-bigness of the bed is by itself only the first sign of the problem. The deeper problem is that we have built the bed. The practico-inert is our relation to this bed we have made. I think for all its strange and disturbing, raw-nerve, head-fuck super-artiness, EDSS is comprehensible along this line.
I have to go to bed now but I hope we can talk later about the music, the cinematography and the acting, among other things. I especially want to explore the use of naturalistic performances and realistic actions in the film. I mean, these are not kids in suits. These are actual dwarfs on the set. And these are not rubber chickens being thrown through windows. These are flesh-and-blood birds. I want to get into this not on behalf of some misguided political correctness about the dignity of little people and animal rights and such. My interest is in investigating how Herzog moves freely between capturing actuality and fabricating an illusion in his unified approach to the image. He openly refuses to demarcate his documentary film-making from his feature films and even within a single film we can see this refusal. If Grizzly Man has imaginative elements, EDSS has aspects of cinema verite. Crazy as this sounds, the film being so in-your-face surreal.
One thing is for certain, the film is a masterpiece. The only reason why Aguirre is better is because people are hard-wired to search for meaningful patterns in any human communication, including art, and a little bit of pattern called plot goes a long way in giving us an Archimedean point from which to derive meaning. This is to say that nobody can sit out on the limb of surrealism all day. Story-telling that partakes of realism is the main trunk of any cultural tree. Aguirre tells a tale, in an historical context, no less. EDSS is living in its own private Idaho baby - whoa! But it's a close second. And this is the real surreal deal. Makes David Lynch look like the poser he mostly is.
And Dan (for once ignoring the cheap shot at Lynch):
Aguirre also has Klaus Kinski, so even if it had NO narrative, it would have a charismatic central character unmatched by any of the figures in EDSS.
You raise many salient points in your review, but I'd like to highlight your take on the bedroom/"honeymoon" scene, which you've rightly identified as a key to unlocking (hen) Herzog's intent. My first thought while watching the futility of the whole thing, after fiddling in frustration as the groom moved magazines over one at a time in order to built a platform, was "move the fucking chair over beside the bed," but realized that the chair was probably too damned big for him anyway (judging by the lack of air he got on his sadsack jumps, basketball was not his sport of choice.) And yet, despite being unable to enjoy the "conjugal bed" (even if it's all really just a mockery or parody of a wedding), the couple finds solace in the porno magazines (apparently decades-old Spanish skin mags). There can be titillation, but no conjugation. There is the hint of sex, but without the fertility of the act. And that lack of fertility is reflected in the volcanic wasteland that is their home on this island. In fact, the destruction of the few images of nature (the tree, the plants, the pig, the monkey--though the latter is also a symbol of their rejection/mockery of religion) key us into their rejection of mudda nature, which they view as complicit in their struggle against the cruelty of their existence. It is a scene that is mirrored in the passage where the young lady shows off her insect collection/wedding party. Neither will end in consummation, and best case scenario, we end up preserved in some perverse sorta parody of the kinds of rituals that are supposed to bind us together and elevate us above the rest of creation.
It's such a great and terrible film. I'd love to watch EDSS and Aguirre on a double bill at Cinecenta someday.
It is you who raises a salient point with respect to Aguirre having a central character - wake up Ben, the title of the film, duh - never mind it having a (bit more of a) plot (than EDSS).
I did not, however, rightly indentify the bedroom/"honeymoon" scene as a key to unlocking Herzog's intent. In the first place, I did not attend to the scene, you did, and intelligently at that. I merely seized upon the bed itself as but one example of what I interpreted in terms of Sarte's practico-inert. In the second and main place, that's just my interpretation. I wouldn't want to speculate on Herzog's intent. The most I would insist upon as being directly evident from his text is the "use" of midgets to signify disproportion, itself a signifier of... at this point my reading comes into play. Herzog's dwarfs in EDSS are akin to Kafka's bug in Metamorphosis, I'll defend that position at a symposium, but after that I am at best proposing a Marxist-existentialist attempt to extract meaning from what otherwise would be for me utterly incomprehensible.
Since you have addressed the topic of sexuality in the film, or asexuality as it were, I am going to have to ponder this a bit. I am wondering how to bring this into my practico-inert interpretation. Taken as a strictly cultural institution, sexuality can be included in my take, but the biological basis of sexuality presents a problem for my thinking insofar as I am trying to fillet out "nature" in EDSS. I get the feeling that you are not altogether convinced by my reading and now that you make me consider sexuality, neither am I.
It's not that I'm not convinced by your reading, so much as I see that there might be even more here than all that. And what you've given, if not "all" that, is certainly "quite a bit" that.
And what about the acting? I thought, given that the talent pool of folks of their particular dimensions must be pretty damned shallow, given that they had to be not only dwarves, but German-speaking dwarves, that their work here was pretty good. I think Herzog, or the casting agent (if there was one) should be commended for doing such a good job of matching skill sets to roles. According to Herzog, the film was pretty much filmed as scripted, with only the occasional spontaneous inserts--like the "found footage" of the cannibal chickens--added in later. So what I'm saying is he didn't simply film a buncha dwarves behaving like lunatics, he had characters (of sorts) and a story (of sorts) mapped out, and found people to make it happen. Kinda impressive.
I honestly do not know what to make of the sexuality in the film. I can only point out that the "honeymoon" scene features the two tiniest dwarfs and the male, Hombre, resists the rest of them forcing him into the bedroom. His resistance - like all of the resistance in the film - proves futile but not as futile as his subsequent attempt to accommodate himself to his fate by getting on the bed. As for the meaning of the pornography and the insect wedding party in the box replicating the failed midget honeymoon, I'm going to go with you because I've got nothing to go with of my own.
Meanwhile, I hear you not signing on for my focus on the exclusively man-made character of their condition. It is because I have theoretically reduced this condition to one of disproportion that I find it necessary to blame this on human artifice and not nature. It is not nature's fault that the bed is too big, the door handle too high, the Christianity too useless and all the rest of this anti-civilization rebellion come anarchy come nihilism. It is for me essential that the midgets are not "freaks." They are not abominations of nature, a cruel trick of matter, sickness in the seed. They are us after all. And their problem is the world, not the earth, if you follow my distinction. They are not disproportionate in relation to animals, vegetable and minerals. They are disproportionate in relation to words, numbers, tools and toys.
I don't know how you feel about my proportionist reductionism - was this one of my salient points? - but you explicitly indicate that the midgets reject nature, which they view as complicit in their cruel existence. This has to do with their horrendous mistreatment of animals and plants. I tried to account for this by theorizing these plants and animals as agriculturally appropriated, as taken up by social labour into what Marx called our "second nature." In short, I de-natured these organic beings in order to get them into my practico-inert. The exception I could not deal with was the tree outside the compound that they torch and topple.
If I cancel my practico-inert reductionism and accept your contention that they are just as alienated from nature as they are from the products of human labour, I do not see how I can hold on to my interpretation of their midget-ness. The meaning of their disproportion would have to be tossed, it seems to me. Or is this film yet another "cosmic joke" terror-trip? We are just miniscule speaks of nothingness under the twinkling stars, under the hot rays of the sun? I don't think this anti-religious angst is at work in the film, the monkey on the cross notwithstanding. But I am playing dirty pool here by jumping up to the heavens. You point to examples in the film down on the ground, terrestrial alienation from the inorganic landscape, the dead pit into which the automobile is dumped, the lifeless bush that the administrator accosts. I cannot deny that in these instances the very earth appears to be contributing to their insanely fucked condition. Yet, I still cannot see that the earth is what is "cutting them down to size," putting them in their disproportionate place. In your opening review you say of the midgets that "the world is too big for us" and of course you are right. But is the earth too big for us in EDSS?
Jesus, yes, this is cutting to the heart of the matter. In fact, I like and agree with your assessment that it is important that the midgets not be viewed as freaks. They are treated as standard issue humans throughout. The only non-native, a tourist wandering by in a car, is likewise a dwarf, so I think Herzog is quite explicitly asking us to see them as the norm, as representatives of all humanity. I'm not sure that precludes my suggestion that their alienation is not exclusively (though most certainly it is PRIMARILY) with the world they (we) have created, but also with the world they were born into, which includes the natural world. I do think that Herzog wants to remain in the material world, though. Any critique of the church is parenthetical (in the crucifixion of the monkey), and has nothing to do with a wider spiritual angst.
Well, that's darn nice of you but as my last email should make plain, I am finding my interpretation of the film to be something of a zero-sum game. I don't want their midget-ness to be about their disproportion while sitting next to a mountain stream, can you dig it? Or while stranded in the desert either. I know Herzog is profoundly pessimistic about human nature and the civilization it has brought forth, but does he really want to condemn the birds and the bees, the rocks and the trees as well? [PAUSE] Yeah... he does. Shee-it! Talk about your non-Romantic. This is a guy who could make the symbiosis of a lichen look like a dichotomized covert predatory struggle within a single organism. OK, not just the world but the very earth is making midgets of us. Fine. Fuck. Should have know it was pointless to bring Sarte into this. But by the way, you name-dropped Camus and there's no place for him in this either. Back to Beckett and Kafka. Sigh.
Yes, the acting. Here we have a pretty plain case of Herzog walking on both sides of the real/fake fence. Some of the performers seem to be "in role" and some of them seem to be "personally participating," for lack of a better distinction. None of them are "playing themselves," they are all "performing," but whereas some seem to have a character or persona, others seem to be spontaneously reacting, no doubt, under the director's direction. Examples: Hombre is "acting," the littlest woman with whom he tries to share the bed is not. Notice how she corpses as Hombre attempts to jump. The administrator of the institution is acting, the leader of the gang tied to the chair is not. Notice how he laughs spontaneously, or not, depending on what is going on around him. At one point he almost receives a shard of glass in his face and he reacts with genuine concern for his safety. And when all of them have a food fight and go on a vandalism spree, this is clearly improvised mayhem. They're acting alright - like kids. Herzog's blending of professionalism and naturalism in the performances is, I reckon, a vital factor in the realism/surrealism issue I brought up previously. All the stuff with the animals also. This is what I have called "method directing" in the past, a term I like even though I am still unclear how to define it.
And yes, you are right. At least I was analytical enough and honest enough to call my interpretation reductionist. I made too sharp a turn at what I thought was a fork in the road between EDSS and Aguirre. But the road doesn't fork. It veers.
And looking inward a bit, I can see that I was trying to sneak some vestige of a radical critique into my reading of EDSS, my disclaimer about this notwithstanding. Aguirre I knew was a lost cause in this regard and I said as much a few months ago over at Matt's. But I was holding out some hope for politics in the land of midgets. Yikes. Don't hold it against me. Silent resignation is not even offered by Herzog. Hence you ask: "Is this Herzog's dim candle of hope? That the only response to the impossibility of the human condition is insane laughter? "
Did you just say I was right? Good enough for me. Turn out the lights, the party's over, folks.
Wait a minute, not so fast...Ben has returned, two years later, with the following observations:
Recent discussion with Edward Copeland about Dwarves, first at The House Next Door and then at Edward Copeland On Film, has compelled me to return to the investigation that was conducted here over two years ago. In concluding his comment then, Scott apologized for supposedly butting into the discussion between Dan and me. I felt bad about this at the time because one of the main objectives in blogging is to attract other people to join the conversation, right? More substantively, I feel bad about it now because it seems to me today that Scott had an insight that neither Dan nor I had.
The two of us recognized the "insane laughter" informing the film and even suggested that whatever hope there may be in Dwarves would have to come from it. But beyond this, all our attention was on the insanity and not on the laughter. Scott, on the other hand, attended to the laughter. More precisely, he found the disproportion at the center of the film not just "unsettling" (for me, an understatement) but also "comical." I think Scott is completely correct about this. What is more, there may not be any obvious signs of hope in Dwarves, but there is at least something that constitutes a precondition for it and Scott opens the door to this. The nihilism of Dwarves is so intense, it seems as if there can be no compassion - but there is some! - and it is only accessible by moving through the insanity to the laughter.
In order to move so accordingly, I have been helped by the essay on Dwarves at Inadequate Imagery. The opening paragraph explicitly identifies the film as a "comedy." Scott proposed that at least one scene operates on the "slapstick level." Dan and I were so busy associating Herzog with Beckett and Kafka - we plumb forgot that Godot and Metamorphosis are comedies, and fundamentally missed that Dwarves is one too. By "fundamentally" I mean that we couldn't get a glimpse of anything remotely positive coming off the film by way of humour. In short, we missed the compassion. Not so over at Inadequate Imagery:
"So, yes, Even Dwarfs.. is an undeniably pessimistic film but I would argue it never descends completely into cold, emotionally disengaged nihilism. In fact, though very little time is spent fleshing out characters and despite their increasingly unsympathetic behaviour I still felt a surprising warmth towards the dwarfs. There is a genuine impression of comradeship and collective liberation that I suspect is a reflection of the cast's actual experience on set."
Whether or not this explanation for the impression identified is correct - and Inadequate Imagery also acknowledges the cinema verite issue of the possible abuse of the actors on the set - the identification of the impression is correct in my view. A surprising warmth towards the characters is achieved by the film to the extent that the characters cooperate and enjoy each other's company. It is a little shop of horrors gone mad, to be sure. But at the same time, whenever they do appear to be having fun, they sometimes appear to us as funny and therefore attractive.
That this humorous attraction is not just the fascinated hysteria of a freak show is adressed by Inadequate Imagery. Confirming Cinemania's basic thesis that the disproportion in Dwarves represents the universal human condition, Inadequate Imagery holds that "dwarfism becomes less a distinguishing physical characteristic (we never see a non-dwarf) than a viscerally charged existential metaphor." In keeping with this thesis, Inadequate Imagery makes a very convincing technical observation with respect to cinematography:
"Mauch’s camerawork [is] mostly shot at waist height and making frequent use of a handheld proto-steadycam so that the viewer is plunged into the dwarfs' world and what at times feels like an almost participatory role in the chaos. Again though, this is a dreamlike semi-participation, fraught with a sense of perceptual dislocation - the trauma of a nightmare in which one finds oneself trapped in the body of a dwarf."
This technical observation speaks directly to the sense of compassion coming off the film as it happens not just between the characters but between them and the audience. Inadequate Imagery pursues this in no uncertain terms with respect to a particular character, but this one example should be generalizable to the film as a whole:
"Staring at a screenshot of Hombre (Helmut Doring), the tiniest yet somehow most prominent dwarf, I am struck by just how profoundly affecting I find his mere image to be. I’m sure this is in part because a glimpse of his disconcerting visage is enough to plunge me back into Herzog’s utterly nightmarish world. But beyond that, it must be said, there is something about him, and I hope it isn’t just a ghoulish reaction to his size. Really, there are few performances I can think of in the history of cinema that I have found quite so hypnotically compulsive or indeed so existentially distressing. I look into his face and there is an awkward uncertainty in his fixed smile that in part strives for approval, a sense of complicity, there is perhaps also a degree of naive malevolence, given free reign in the escalating chaos of this dystopian nightmare. It’s hard to pinpoint, but I’m sure some part of it is an unexpected but deeply felt sense of human empathy."
Dwarves is deeply disturbing. I retract nothing of what I contributed to the discussion at Cinemania two years ago. But today I add that Dwarves is not just deeply disturbing. Somehow or other it is also fun and funny. It is a comedy. In retrospect, Dan got the joke a bit better than I did (although probably not as well as Scott), but Inadequate Imagery really gets the joke to the fullest. The laughter in the film is not just insane and our laughter at it is not absolutely hopeless. Amongst all the nihilism, there is some compassion.