Even Dwarfs Started Small: Persistence and Futility

A singularly evocative setting for the action
A singularly evocative setting for the action

Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) stands out as one of his most singular films. It has virtually no story-line (“dwarfs raise hell” probably exhausts the subject) and its harsh tone seems to confront its audience, aggressively demanding some kind of response. Even the title seems a kind of challenge: why the word “even,” which seems to imply that somehow dwarfs would be the last, rather than the first people one would think of as having “started small?” And yet, despite its obscure “meaning,” Even Dwarfs Started Small is a perfectly appropriate title.

Herzog makes much of his instinctual approach to film-making and, indeed, his films often seem to have emerged almost directly from his unconscious. Of the camel that presides over the climax of Dwarfs Herzog has said, “I only know the camel has to be there.” And he added: “I have no abstract concept that a particular kind of animal signifies this or that, just a clear knowledge that they have an enormous weight in the movies.” Whether or not one takes these pronouncements at face value, Dwarfs‘s images, inexplicable as they may be, provide a singularly evocative setting for the action.

If some of the film’s mysteries are sublimely impenetrable, many of its images are shockingly, perversely concrete: Baby pigs trying to nurse from their dead mother, chickens plucking at each other, an indescribably hilarious mock crucifixion. If Herzog views the natural order as one of lyrical harmony, he identifies human actions as an odd mixture of persistence and futility that generates striking disharmonies. In the film’s opening shot, a dwarf holds a sign, continually turning it in an effort to get the right side up, never quite realizing (within that shot) that, up or down, the sign is backwards. Later, Hombre, the smallest of the dwarfs, tries without success to climb onto a bed. His efforts are futile and yet he persists, within the limits of his imagination and physical limitations, in the face of, and perhaps aware of, that futility, the whole sequence filmed without a cut. The specific problem he faces, how to climb onto a bed that seems too high for him to reach, is absurd and funny, but his broader problem, confronting a world whose design is often inimical to the success of human endeavor, resonates as a universal problem that evokes our empathy even as his persistence commands our respect.

The film is full of images of persistence and futility: Dwarfs wave sticks around without ever quite hitting anything; a man drinks from a bottle that is nearly as big as he is; a crazed warden gives orders to a dead tree. Even the destructiveness of the dwarfs is random, focusing on flowers, trees, and animals as well as on institutional food, eating utensils, and machines. Much of the action is presided over by a car that moves in an endlessly repeated circle; the characters may have set it in motion, but like so many consequences of human action, its motion continues long after everyone has lost interest in it. And the kneeling camel at the film’s end seems to replace the circling car as a presence presiding over the action. If Herzog is deeply distrustful of man’s impact on the natural order, he still has—as with Hombre’s quest to climb the bed—a kind of grudging respect for the stubborn way his characters pursue their follies. The final take of the film is of Hombre, laughing with an enthusiasm that wanes as it starts to give way to interspersed fits of coughing. And yet, hollow though the coughing laughter may be, he persists with it, and, as the film ends, he is still laughing.

© 2009 David Coursen


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