director Werner Herzog
This film, one of director Werner Herzog’s first, is one of the more bizarre films that I have seen in recent memory. The Wikipedia entry on the film sums the narrative up concisely: “A group of dwarfs confined in an institution on a remote island rebel against the guards and director (all dwarfs as well) in a display of mayhem. The dwarfs gleefully break windows and dishes, abandon a running truck to drive itself in circles, engineer food fights and cock fights, set fire to pots of flowers, kill a large pig, torment some blind dwarfs, and crucify a monkey.”
I decided to watch this one as an oddball “dwarf” double feature, a semi-random selection, with another film, The Sinful Dwarf (1973). Even Dwarfs Started Small, oddly enough, isn’t an exploitation film, per se. Though it is noted as being the first feature film since the notorious 1938 Western, The Terror of Tiny Town, to feature an “all-midget” cast. Herzog’s intent and the film’s marketing perhaps are what keep it from being technically an exploitation film. That said, it’s utterly possible to watch it in the vein of exploitation, even if that is somewhat missing the point.
Exploitation or not, it’s a cult film. A cult film with fans such as Crispin Glover, who appears on the commentary track with Herzog discussing the film. It’s akin, perhaps, to David Lynch as well, really a surreal imagining of a world of madness and chaos and anarchy. The images bring to mind the photography of Diane Arbus’ images of the mentally disabled, though the characters of Herzog’s film are actors, albeit non-professional actors. They also call to mind elements of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932).
A mad, sinister chuckle-cum-cackle pervades the soundtrack almost incessantly, evoked from one of two of the actors, who Herzog goaded into constant laughter.
Disturbing as well are elements of animal abuse or at least actual animal violence or suggested violence. Herzog interposes images of chickens pecking at a dead chicken, essentially cannibalizing, as well as images of chickens harassing a one-legged chicken. Chickens are also thrown through a window at one point, subdued rather violently and with a couple of them dying. A sow is killed (supposedly by the curious inmates), and while this was done according to more humane slaughter practice, it is shown in its death throes with its piglets suckling madly at the dying beast. And yes, a monkey is crucified, though tied with string, not nailed to a cross. These elements of veritable physical violence supplement the psychic violence and mad disturbance of the rest of the film’s suggested and real traumas. Not unlike the notorious Cannibal Holocaust (1980), the real images of animal deaths enhance the rest of the film’s violence, giving it greater impact by suggestion and association.
The impact of the film is disturbing and fascinating. It’s a nightmare. It’s metaphorical. Like Arbus’ imagery, there is a voyeuristic, exploitational aspect, but also it crystalizes a deep-seeded sensibility of dissociation and otherness. Playing out to the strains of increasing rebellion and anarchy, it also dredges a Lord of the Flies-like fear of the worst aspects of human nature unbridled by civilization, whatever evils civilization represents in its repression and restraints. It’s compelling and effective as a bizarre horror show.
It’s interesting for me as I’ve been watching a lot of Herzog’s more recent works, both documentary films and narrative features, while interesting, a far cry from his more radical early films. I’d never seen this one before and was very struck by it. I do think it’s telling that the majority of parallels and references that I find for it are more pure Exploitation than not.