By Ken Eisler
[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]
It’s easy to see how Werner Herzog’s third feature might have provoked cries of “Reaction!” from students and other militants. The film’s rebellion of dwarfs against a callous but mealy-mouthed reform school administration certainly “starts small”; it barely gets one cubit off the ground, in fact.
Instead of burning down the school, the rebels burn potted plants. Instead of escaping “nach Dolores Hidalgo,” they commandeer an old car, joyride up and down in it a while, and then abandon it with the motor running, to circle around and around the school courtyard. Instead of humbling the sanctimonious administrators, they torment animals, things, each other. A female dwarf sits at the curb, tirelessly smashing one white egg after another against the stony ground. Another “rebel” busies himself trashing an old typewriter and finally flings it at the circling auto.
As a revolution, this is one long “exercise in futility.” And Herzog’s habitual irony, at many points, does seem to be pointing up a politically wry view of the uprising. Why else draw attention, twice, to the proximity of a town called Dolores Hidalgo—site of the historic Grito (cry) that set in motion the Mexican struggle for independence?
Time and again we come back to the same placidly symmetrical, wide-angle shot, sighted down a landscaped avenue, with the dwarfs milling around at the bottom of the frame, hurling firebrands, chickens, insults at the school, and the Deputy Director (himself a stunted personality; a dwarf!) looking down from the roof, haranguing back, bluffing that the police are on the way (the dwarfs have cut the telephone lines) and threatening bodily harm to Pepe, the rebel dwarf he is holding hostage inside. It’s a standoff; and every time there’s a lull in the rebels’ aimless “revolutionary” activities, they drift back to the avenue for another helping of sound and fury from both sides, presented in the same static shot, until the very end of the movie, when the Deputy finally flips, to rush off the roof, through the building, and right out of the school, leaving behind him the still immobilized figures of the dwarfs in the courtyard, transfixed by the sound of Pepe screaming.
A “counter-revolutionary” film? Maybe, but like Aguirre, the Wrath of God, the other Herzog movie I’ve seen, Dwarfs really seems too rich, dense, and contradictory; too … well, screwy, to be so easily pigeonholed. The team of Herzog, Herzog, Herzog, and Herzog (director, producer, scenarist, music arranger!) is a far cry from, say, Abby Mann / Stanley Kramer, scoring liberal—or conservative—points. Dwarfs is a personal film, very different from the baroque Aguirre, yet instantly recognizable too as the work of the same extraordinary, major director.
Aguirre ended with the camera describing widening gyres above a crazed conquistador—another failed revolutionary, adrift on a raft littered with corpses and filling with tiny chattering monkeys. At the conclusion of Dwarfs, the reform school’s Deputy Director runs pell-mell out of the school and into the surrounding wastes, zigzagging like Arturo de Cordova at the end of Él. In the courtyard of the school, meanwhile, a camel, brought to its knees, repeatedly rises on its hindlegs and starts to rise on its forelegs, and sinks again to its knees, while the tiniest dwarf, Hombre, laughs hysterically but more and more uncertainly, and in the background the abandoned car, its doors all flung wide, goes round and round.
In both films moments of tenderness rub shoulders with moments of horrifying cruelty, and both are shot through with a very black Herzogian humor.
A woman dwarf, in this one’s most astonishing scene, is persuaded at last to reveal contents of a cigar box she’s been carrying around with the air of a prized possession. She sits down against a wall, on the same stone walk against which the eggs are soon to be systematically dashed. The bickering, bantering dwarfs cluster around her. As soon as she lifts the lid, their mood changes. Inside is a miniaturized universe. A “Bride,” a “Bridegroom,” and a “Best Man”—decked out in the finery of an oldfashioned wedding party—are displayed, lovingly, to oohs and ahs and delighted laughter and exclamations of “wunderbar!” from the tiny onlookers. The figures in the box are insects. The dwarf has fashioned little handmade clothes for them: top hat, bridal veil, gown. A dispute breaks out concerning the knitting required to clothe an eight-legged spider. “But spiders only have six legs.” “Well, this one has eight legs!” And suddenly, among continued outcries of heartfelt affection for the little cigar-box inhabitants, are admixed several small, unselfconscious emanations of pure sadism. “Then we’ll tear two of his legs off!” Ecstatic giggling from Hombre (the tiniest dwarf, the camel-watcher). “Ja! Ja! Ja! We’ll split him from armpit to collar!”
Two other dwarfs rush onscreen, crying: “They’ve killed the pig! They’ve killed the pig!” and the scene is over. We go right to a high longshot of a dead sow lying on her side, a crew of piglets vainly burrowing at her teats. Then a wide-angle composition, rather formal, of the dwarfs disposed in awkward, embarrassed attitudes in the space surrounding the dead sow, fidgeting slightly. Herzog holds this one.
It isn’t the nature of revolution that seems to interest him, really, in Dwarfs, so much as the uneasy human balance between the impulse to destroy and the contrary, much fainter, impulse to create. Images of sterility predominate here, from the stillborn revolt itself, of course, to the harsh black and white visualization of a school with pitiless white walls, set in a barren landscape of lava beds, desert, and a piece of highway broken by a pole carrying sharply angled directional signs. And yet, all the time, the landscape contains a counterpoint: remote, almost hallucinatory, two muted, medium-grey-toned mountains with soft, rounded peaks, twin Sugar Loafs.
Women provided a softening influence in Aguirre, notably the princess (Helena Rojo). A benign Pandora opens the lid on the cigar-box’s tender microcosm in Dwarfs; but it’s also a woman who obsessively dashes the eggs against stone—and a woman’s harsh, high voice recurrently harrows the soundtrack behind Herzog’s grueling shots of a dead chicken in the schoolyard, being absently cannibalized by its erstwhile companions.
When the smallest male, Hombre, and the smallest female dwarf are thrust into an instructor’s room together by the other dwarfs to celebrate the new “freedom” by making love on the instructor’s bed, the female enacts a charade of maidenly coyness and coquettishness. For a moment, in Herzog’s long-held, tranquil, beautifully composed shot from the foot of the bed, it seems that the room’s stark tonal values—white walls, crisp white sheets—framed by a floridly curving iron bedstead, may be transvalued. But fertility has only an ironic place in this revolution. Little Hombre, a nervous grin flickering on and off his trapped face, hesitates at the threshold, his eyes darting about the room. He keeps trying to exit, but is pushed back inside each time by a phalanx of cackling dwarfs. Finally he takes his “bride”’s hand and is ushered to the big bed. She manages to climb up; Hombre, after a comically pathetic attempt to gain extra height for his running jump by piling up a few thin magazines, fails. Giving up, they examine the pages of one of the magazines together, the woman seated on the bed’s apparently huge white expanse, Hombre standing alongside.
It’s a girlie magazine, in fact, and it too, with its full-page photographs of nudes, appears outsize. In the next scene, all the magazines have been handed round, and the rebels are scattered around the schoolyard perusing the pages with a mixture of merriment, salaciousness, embarrassment, and barely suppressed anger that chimes with the bed and cigar-box scenes to suggest the profound ambivalence which sexuality arouses in them.
“Oh, oh, her eyes … are just like stars!” Hombre rhapsodizes, his eyes fixed lewdly on a rolling acre of bare female flesh. “So this is what that pig of an instructor likes to look at.”
It’s this Hombre—a reluctant ineffectual “groom,” and the man who in the final scene stands and giggles interminably at the sight of a stately camel brought to its knees—it’s this Hombre who is lifted onto the broad seat of a motorcycle standing throbbing in the yard and photographed from below, wide-angle, sitting in a transport of joy astride the chopper, his hands placed by other hands on either handlebar. He revs and revs the motor, grinning: a manikin on a machine vibrating with power but going nowhere … a travesty of potency.
So it is with the entire dwarfs’-rebellion. Their energies are expended largely in attacking anything that grows, moves, or gives birth. They uproot the absent Director’s favorite palm tree; they collect and burn all the plants they can find. By way of adding to the sport of tormenting the unfortunate sow, they prod and push away the piglets who are trying desperately, instinctively, to reach her teats.
When they run short of live things to make dead, the dwarfs seize inanimate things, “animate” them, and then attack them with the same gusto. It never mattered, after all, as far as the administration of this reform school for dwarfs was concerned, whether the inmates were “good” or “bad”; why preserve other so-called distinctions honored by the Big People? Once abandoned by the driver, the old jalopy which might have taken them to Dolores Hidalgo continues to circle round and round the courtyard like an autonomous creature, the engine putt-putting away and a simple, spare riff repeating itself softly on the soundtrack. So the dwarfs start yelling at the jalopy and tossing things in its path: stones, food, insults, the guts of the brutalized typewriter.
When the Deputy Director finally goes round the bend and rushes out into the desert, he fetches up in front of a dead tree and begins haranguing it. Quit pointing your finger at me, he demands. All right, I’ll point mine at you then, we’ll see who can outlast who, if it takes all night. His delusion echoes a folktale motif common in trickster tales, I’m told; it also fits smoothly into the grimly comic context of Dwarfs.
In some mysterious limbo between animate and inanimate dwell the institution’s two blind dwarfs, and they give rise to the film’s most eerily poetic, as well as its bleakest imagery. They provide pools of stillness, slow careful movement, amidst the continual cackling and rushing about of the rebels. Strange little half-world figures, overalled, coiffured in airmen’s leather helmets and goggles, they move cautiously toward a well, waving their sticks before them. One pauses, drops a stone into the well, cocks a helmeted head for the splash. The two sit immobile, side by side, in big stone chairs, in the dappled light of the garden. Their heads incline toward the only sound audible, the chirping of birds. Herzog holds the shot a long time.
We learn at length from the Deputy Director that the two were blinded by their parents and sent out to beg. Victims. Fluid camera movements render their preparations for a rudimentary skittles-type game—their walking about gathering materials, sticks waving before them like delicate insect antennae—as a kind of ballet. But they have barely begun the game when big, leering faces crawl obliquely into the frame from either side, like Jancso horsemen radiating from the edges toward the distant figures of prisoners just given a chance to “escape” across the flat Hungarian plain. After the faces come the crawling bodies of a couple of bored rebels, and some more random violence ensues as the stone with which the blind dwarfs play their game is filched, and other rebels rush up to the helpless, stick-wielding victims, pat their rumps, and skitter hilariously offscreen again.
One of the most beautiful images in Dwarfs is of the two tiny blind people approaching the sow, feeling it out curiously with their sticks, then laying their sticks aside and running their hands in wonderment over its large, fleshy body. In a Herzog movie, though, there’s never any danger of getting sentimental over victims. Perhaps the most chilling image is of the be-goggled pair standing on either side of the sow, swinging their sticks viciously through the air at each other, across the corpse, the sticks whistling like samurai swords.
They present an insoluble problem, the Deputy Director complains. If you mix them with other inmates, somebody will get killed. Try to separate them … they go on a hunger strike!
It remains to admit that after a spellbinding, virtually flawless first 45 minutes or so, Herzog’s movie is invaded by tedium. Or so I have to report, at any rate, for myself and two companions at Pacific Cinematheque’s recent Vancouver showing. Perhaps other viewers will be caught up in the feeling of ritual that putatively underlies the dwarfs’ treadmill activities. But for me, the sustained excitement of the first half was gradually drained by a certain—dare I call it?—Germanic heaviness in the second. Again and again the camera returns to the school’s courtyard to drink in the spectacle of the old car turning in circles; again and again we watch the chickens scuttling along, pausing to peck and tear at the body of their dead fellow-chicken.
And beyond these repetitions lies the very moot matter of rhythm. For just how many extra beats can you hold a shot before it passes over from surprise, or symbolism or even sheer beauty, into overemphasis? Herzog can’t seem to tear his camera (or his editor?) away from the smoke that fills the courtyard when the plants are burned—and now, what’s this we see, slowly, spectrally materializing from the swirls of smoke … can it be? … yes, oh god, it’s the friggin’ jalopy again, circling … circling … endlessly circling … Pepe, the dwarf held hostage by the Deputy Director, bound to a chair in a barricaded room, Pepe begins to laugh in the Deputy’s face—extreme closeup of Pepe—and he laughs—and laughs—and laughs: genug already!
Fortunately, Herzog’s humor, visual and verbal, (and one of my co-viewers assures me that the dialogue is couched in a much more robust street-German than the subtitles ever conveyed) saves the day time and again.
When the dwarfs set up a table in the yard for an al fresco meal, their banquet degenerates rapidly into a Bunuelian mess in which they deliberately mock the institutional motto of “Cleanliness and Order.” The scene goes on too long—and yet; there are touches. Good manners, good manners, forks on the left, knives on the right, say grace!—the dwarfs join hands and, chorally, with exaggerated seriousness, intone a prayer. Admonitions on etiquette are given with equal solemnity. “Bring your fork to your mouth,” counsels one dwarf, “and not the other way round.”
And just when the tossing of plates and utensils and orts of food at the circling jalopy has begun to pall, Herzog throws in a casual joke worthy of Keaton. We see inspiration strike one little rebel: he grabs a couple of plates and runs up to place them in the path of the car. It comes putt-putting around … and misses the plates entirely. Back to the table for two more plates, arranged on the ground this time with enormous care to anticipate the trajectory of the tires. The dwarf stands aside and waits. Around comes the jalopy. Closeup of the tire rolling toward the plates, closer … and, surprise! sliding smooth as a dancer, oblique, impeccably in orbit, between the two plates. It is a metaphor that remains, unlike the circumambulations of the jalopy itself, blessedly unstressed.
Even Dwarfs Started Small
Screenplay, direction, and production: Werner Herzog. Cinematography: Thomas Mauch. Editing: Beata Mainka-Jellinghaus. Musical arrangements: Herzog. Sound: Herbert Prasch.
The Players: Helmut Doring, Gisela Hartwig, Paul Glauer, Erna Gschwnedtner, Gerd Gickel, Gerhard Marz, Hertel Minkner, Alfredo Piccilli, Gertraud Piccini, Brigitte Saar, Marianne Saar, Erna Smolarz, Lajos Zsarnoczay.
© 1974 Ken Eisler