It's Al's birthday again, and once again I am filled with regret at permitting him to survive another year.
Our film on this year's expedition into bizarro land is Werner Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small, a strange little film with a cast completely composed of little people about...I'm not quite sure, really.
Okay, so here's what I think the idea is. A group of little people live in an institution. A mysterious "Principal" is away, so they've been breaking the institution rules, and their "Instructor" (also a little person) has taken one of them hostage to try to get the others to stop, unsuccessfully.
That's basically the entire plot of the movie. This isn't so much a story as...I suppose a kind of study in human nature. There really isn't much to recount in terms of story. Rather, it's just a basic sequence of events, not really even much connected, in which the little people play pranks, explore the institution, get into places, break stuff, and engage in massive cruelty to animals (more on that later), and then occasionally run by the building the instructor is in and taunt him while he yells back or bemoans his fate to his prisoner.
That's pretty much the whole film. This is one of the easier ones to do for a birthday review in terms of plot analysis, as there's not a heck of a lot there. In terms of concept, it's a little deeper, if still not nearly so deep as to justify its roughly hour and a half runtime.
So here's the general idea. As the film starts, after a brief scene of one of the little people (known as "Hombre," not that it will ever matter, so I'm not sure why I mentioned it) being interrogated and refusing to tell anything about some past events, we go back to view said past events and see that the Instructor has Pepe, one of the...I guess I can't just say one of the little people, since the Instructor is a little person too, so let's call him one of the students. Not sure if this is a school or prison or mental institution or what, really, but we'll go with school given the other terminology used. He has one of the students tied to a chair and is threatening to hurt him unless the other students stop. The students, though, are quite sure Pepe won't be hurt because the Instructor has no guts, so they go on misbehaving.
Their play starts out reasonably innocent, with them running around and just generally laughing together, then gets a bit racy when they find some...well, not quite porno mags, but close enough. But then it starts getting destructive, cruel, and disturbing, as they start to play pranks on and then actively torment some blind little people that also live at the school, break anything they can get their hands on, recklessly play atop a moving car, and engage in various acts of animal cruelty, including beating piglets with sticks while they try to feed, killing the mother pig, throwing chickens around, holding a cockfight, mock-crucifying a monkey and marching around with him in a parody of a religious rite, and...unless I'm drawing too much implication into things...breaking a camel's front legs and laughing at it when it can't get up.
Okay...I'm going to very briefly compliment one thing here: I do get this film's general concept. Freedom, a lack of restraint, can lead to fulfillment and joy...but also to cruelty and chaos. Freed from the burdens of the rules of their institution (which...honestly...it might have been better to show a little first), the students do whatever they want. At first we're kind of with them, since they just seem to be having fun, but when they start to delve into cruelty, we start to question if we should be rooting for them...or at least happy for them, since it's hard to root for someone in a movie without a plot...after all. The film does very nicely portray that concept, albeit using a runtime at least double what it needs to do so.
But it goes really, really far to do it.
There are multiple scenes of what appears to be legitimate animal cruelty in this film. At the very least, there's cockfighting, and a scene in which the Instructor drags chickens around a room holding them up by their wings, which can't be good for them, and a scene in which a one-legged chicken hobbles away from a chicken that keeps chasing it and pecking at it, helpless to get away. I'm less sure about the pig and the camel, but if someone told me that they actually killed a pig and broke a camel's legs for this film I wouldn't be surprised at all. There's even a scene of a chicken eating a dead chicken's corpse. Even the parts that I'm pretty sure of make me feel sick for having watched it. This is at many points an animal snuff film. I caught several moments where I'm pretty darn sure I watched a chicken die. On camera.
Then of course there's the poor monkey, tied to a cross and clearly terrified out of its mind, struggling to get free. I was half expecting them to chuck the poor monkey underneath the speeding, driverless car still rolling around from an earlier scene by that point. That didn't happen, but it wouldn't have looked out of place.
It is hard to try to judge this film on any kind of artistic level. Look, I get that standards were...lax...in the old days, but come on! There's not just one but several scenes of blatant mistreatment and even deaths of animals--unless I am drastically mistaking what I've seen in this film, and I don't think I am because I'm pretty sure chickens aren't that good at acting dead all of a sudden. I'm busy trying not to be revolted by what I've just watched.
To get back off the subject of horrific maltreatment of animals...the cast is...decent. They don't really have all that much in the way of character--not that it would matter--though each kind of has a standout trait or two (like Hombre, who is constantly laughing, to the extent the poor guy ends up in coughing fits at times), but they get the mood of things appropriately, and that's pretty much all you need in a film like this. I'm not really sure how I feel about the various things the little people themselves are asked to do. Some seem pretty mean-spirited, like a scene in which a lengthy joke is played out about Hombre not being able to jump up on a bed. But...you know, none of them actually died on camera (though from what I understand, that was a near thing for one of the actors, twice!), so they're one up on the animals for this film, at least.
Look, what else do you want me to say? There's not a lot to talk about. This isn't that interesting of a film...it's just scene after scene of "little people get into mischief and/or cruelty" and occasionally an administrator waxing poetic while Pepe laughs (he laughs a lot too), interspersed with the same two musical tracks, over and over--at least not playing constantly like in some films I've watched, but still playing far too often. There's no reason this has to be anywhere near as long as it is. There's no reason it has to spend such a long time focusing on the car circling around, or chickens chasing each other, or blind guys sitting on a dead pig, or basically repeating the same scene over and over with the students taunting the Instructor. You could do this entire concept in half the time. Hell, you could do this entire concept in a quarter of the time. Maybe if there were subplots or actual interesting relationships between the students, or maybe if they actually had moral disagreements about some things, or...some kind of conflict at all, maybe then you could do this for an hour and a half. As it is, it feels like someone turned on videos of their family picnic and trimmed out any discussions that would actually reveal who anyone was, except that their family is demented and likes cockfighting.
Even Dwarfs Started Small is a bizarre, twisted little film. It is far too long for its own good, doesn't have much actual content at all, and includes a variety of scenes that made me feel physically ill. It feels like the predecessor to some Ulli Lommel films I've had the misfortune of watching--just repetitive variants on the same thing, over and over again. It's like someone trying to get your attention, and it starts out with them just being kind of annoying and poking you and saying your name and all, but in this case, next thing you know they've murdered your dog.