Even Dwarfs Started off Small
This is a chilling and controversial Existentialist parable. But what is it
a parable of? When released in 1969, Herzog was criticized by Socialists,
White Supremacists and by Ethnic Minorities, all of whom believed they were
being lampooned in the story. Today, it is still an underrated masterwork.
In the narrative, a group of midgets rebel against the management of their
school. The school is on one of the Canary Islands, and the black volcanic
landscape contrasts sharply with the shimmering white walls of the school
buildings. The Director of the school, himself a midget, barricades himself
inside the office after taking one of the rebels hostage. He bares his
heart to Pepe the hostage. Pepe, tied to a chair, does not utter a single
word. He only giggles. Outside, the rebels run amok. They break windows;
stage a mock marriage between two of their number; kill a sow; harrass two
blind inmates; throw food everywhere; cut down down telephone lines and set
fire to flowers. The midgets crucify a live monkey and make a truck drive
in circles in the school yard, driverless. In the end, the Director goes
insane and beats Pepe almost to death (off camera). All the rebels are
apprehended by the Police. The rebellion is a failure.
Herzog never really seemed fully aware of the power of the images he was
creating. The film has the unadorned clarity and resonance of a myth. This
gives it its peculiar power. Socialists believed Herzog was telling them
the revolutions worldwide were sham failures, hence their ire. Minority
groups believed he was demonstrating the futility of any efforts they might
have been making toward equality and freedom of speech. One is not sure
what the racists saw, but some kept phoning Herzog with their marksmanship
ratings. Werner Herzog is one of the world's greatest Directors of film.
This is his best. Certainly, the film may not have the physical beauty of
Aguirre or Nosferatu. It was, after all, shot in black and white. But the
very specificity of the latter two stories renders them objectively remote
from our personal experience. These are specific tales of the obsessions of
particular men in a well defined moment of time. "Dwarfs", however,
possesses a universality lacking in Herzog's other masterpieces. He himself
believes this film will outlast his others in the affections of critics and
So, can we hazard a guess as to how to interpret this disturbing film?
Perhaps, we are all the midgets, dwarfed by the universe, rebelling against
the artificial constructs that bear our own fingerprints, the creaking,
sterile social environments in which we live. Ours is a world of fragile
conventions, memories, and mutually agreeable ways of doing things that in
their totality constitute a gossamer-thin tissue between ourselves and the
silent black void of space. "Dwarfs" is a parable of human existence on
this orb, of what can happen when we choose to question why things are the
way they are. Art, religion, technology, relationships are all shown to be
meaningless at their core in this bleak movie. And so the midgets trash all
in their sight. They answer no questions, and come to no conclusions. They
were just angry, about everything.
One may not accept Herzog's vision, but one cannot deny the painful bite of
his razor-sharp insights into our self-deception.