HERZOG’S SECOND FILM is a self-acknowledged waking nightmare from a man who does not dream. It concerns a clutch of dwarfs in a desert institution compound, running themselves around until they achieve an anarchist frenzy and laugh in the face of nothingness. The film defies the audience any explanation for its feverish imagery, gives us hardly any clues into its motivations, and exists as an abrupt, incomplete episode along an unspecified timeline in a universe that hardly seems our own.
And yet it is. Herzog deliberately created an alien atmosphere from the outset by seeking an inhospitable environment (the tree they cut down for the film had to be planted first, since hardly any were sustained by the volcanic terrain), then cast only dwarfs to force our perspective into a smaller scale. In this way, he aims for the audience to identify with the characters more than the environments, to perceive them as natural and their surroundings as exceptional and oversize. We may not, as he claims to, forget that we are looking at dwarfs halfway through the film, but through the intuitive camerawork of Thomas Mauch (Herzog’s favored collaborated), we do become deeply and naturally invested in the group by experiencing the world at their pace and from their level.
And though the plot is filled with non sequiturs, the momentum towards madness is unmistakably focused and full of shadowed menace. Early in the film one actor is alarmed when she accidentally pulls a door handle off and hastens to put it back (Herzog makes fun of her “bourgeois instinct”); by film’s end, every character is gleefully torching, breaking, and otherwise defacing the creations around them, be they natural or manmade. Herzog never shies away from grandiloquent, if unspecified, metaphors, and ‘Even Dwarfs…’ may be his most bold. It rivals ‘Woyzeck’ as one of his most difficult films to watch and digest. But where ‘Woyzeck’s darkness is absolute, ‘Even Dwarfs…’ is filled with a sardonic glee that may be even more unsettling. It seems that half the ‘dialogue’ is simply mad giggling, increasing in intensity apace with the unraveling of all societal mores.
Herzog scholars will note the recurrence of some favored motifs in later films—the empty, circling car returning in ‘Stroszek’; the end-times banquet in ‘Nosferatu’—and here they are exhibited in their most unvarnished and absolute form. Perhaps more than a film—a steady chronicle of characters we come to know and feel comfortable with—‘Even Dwarfs…’ is a moving picture scrapbook of a stranger whose lifespan we do not know, whose loves and perspective are strange at first, but whose fears and failures we slowly begin to realize are our own. And everyone’s.