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Werner Herzog

Offing the Pig: Even Dwarfs Started Small

By Ken Eisler

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Even Dwarfs
The revolutionary act of burning the potted plants

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?

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Signs of Life: Longing for a Rational, Ordered World

Although Signs of life (1967) was Herzog’s first feature film, it has few of the self-conscious, look-at-me-making-a-movie film school tricks that often characterize first efforts. Compared to the director’s later work, it seems muted, but it contains many of its director’s signature motifs and devices: strikingly bizarre, expressive images; off-beat, occasionally off-the-wall humor rooted in behavioral eccentricities; a sense of the limitations of verbal communication; visual and verbal references to moving in circles; and an obsessive concern with how characters confront a natural order that is often indifferent, if not actively hostile, to human aspirations.

Signs of Life
Signs of Life

As a strictly fictional film, Signs is closer to Stroszek (1977)—the central character in each is named Stroszek—than to much of Herzog’s intervening work. Signs even employs a narrator whose comments apparently impose order on the action by explaining and describing it. Certainly, compared to later films like the wildly anarchic Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), Signs seems almost conventional.

Stroszek’s situation in Signs of Life is typically ironic and perverse. A paratrooper we never see leave the ground, he was wounded in occupied territory, during a lull in the fighting, circumstances that, perversely, offered the illusion of safety. He is introduced in extreme long-shot as a helpless, wounded figure; we are told he is a passenger in a truck crossing a desolately beautiful landscape, and we first see him as a motionless figure on a stretcher being carried into a hospital. Through the balance of the film, his world remains out of kilter, and eventually he goes mad and assaults the world, setting off fireworks to prevent the sun from rising.

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Aguirre, The Wrath of God – Defying the Natural Order

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) was Werner Herzog’s fifth feature film—his first with Klaus Kinski—and arguably his most compelling, resonant, and admired early work. Its opening titles announce its subject as an expedition led by Pizarro in search of El Dorado, that crossed the Andes descended to the jungle floor, and made an ill-fated decision to attempt a raft trip down river.

Klaus Kinski as Aguirre
Klaus Kinski as Aguirre

From its opening moments, the film has a dual focus. The opening titles, fictitiously evoking Spanish conquistadors—an expedition, set in 1560, supposedly led by Pizarro, who died in 1541—suggest a narrative fiction film, perhaps a fable about imperialism. But a breathtaking series of early images, of clouds, of a vertical mountainside with a fragile human chain descending, as much from the clouds as the summit, suggest a lyrically poetic documentary portrayal of man inter­acting with—and being overwhelmed by—the natural world. In many ways, of course, the two are comple­mentary; the narrative of imperialism is largely one of conquerors subduing natives before being, in turn subdued and engulfed by the land.

This double focus is not surprising for Herzog, who persistently blurred the distinctions between documentary and fiction. Fata Morgana (1970) contains some of the most poetically evocative landscapes ever filmed, but Herzog reportedly believes there’s a narrative in there somewhere, based on a creation legend. And the “straight” documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) uses its factual subjects as starting points for metaphysical exploration. Finally, the early Herzog “fiction” film with the fewest “real­istic” trappings, the ponderously stylized Heart of Glass (1976)—complete with a cast “acting” while under hypnosis—nearly collapses under the weight of its self-conscious ramblings.

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