Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Stop laughing!

Even Dwarfs Started Small, Werner Herzog's second feature, opens with a little person, Pepe (Gerd Gickel), holding a sign displaying numbers and letters (possibly prison ID). Pepe turns the sign around and around, upside-down and backwards, but either defiantly or unintentionally, he never displays the sign correctly. The shot contains an unbearable tension, provoked by our impatience, that is captured repeatedly throughout the film. Even Dwarfs Started Small is as simultaneously unwatchable and compelling as a traffic accident.

Pepe is being held hostage by the president (Pepi Hermine) of a institution populated entirely by little people. The residents have staged a rebellion against the president, who hides with his bound captive in a remote tower while the diminutive revolutionaries - well, any other attempt at a conventional plot summary is futile. Cars are driven into the grown, flowers burned, chickens turned cannibalistic, and a monkey is mock crucified, among many other things. And then there's the camel. The cast screams their lines at a piercing pitch, constantly shouting over one another. The camera is constantly racing at a breakneck speed towards and around grainy images of destruction and inexplicable behavior. The cumulative visual and aural effect is akin to riding a hundred miles an hour in a burning schoolbus driven by Oscar the Grouch while rhesus monkeys copulate in the back seats and an off-key mariachi band plays in the front. Also, the bus is running over a field of Boohbahs.

It's amazing, watching this early feature, how much Herzog has evolved as a filmmaker. His stated claim in recent years has been to reveal the "ecstatic truth," but in Dwarfs there is no ecstasy (truth, perhaps, but of the bitterest sort). This is very much the work of an angry, conflicted young man, and is driven by an anarchic sensibility that reappears in a more contemplative mode in films like Stroszek. However, this is not to say that Dwarfs is inferior to Herzog's latter works; in fact, it's one of his best films. It's just revealing because, while the beginnings of Herzog's favorite themes (the underlying chaos of nature, the border between triumph and madness) are evident here, it bears little stylistic resemblance to the director's larger body of work. While Herzog's films are often brilliantly hallucinatory, Dwarfs' DNA is closer to films like Eraserhead and El Topo that bypass any formal analysis and enter the realm of pure experience. You don't watch Even Dwarfs Started Small so much as inject it into your bloodstream.

I won't pretend to understand every scene in Dwarfs; I have my ideas, but I wouldn't claim that they're definitive. Dwarfs works as an allegory for the nature of revolution - when it was released Marxists, civil rights groups, and segregationists all thought the film was about them and took offense. But it's larger than allegory; scenes such as the "insect wedding" (see for yourself) bypass conventional modes of interpretation and work on a primal, instinctive level. At the start of the film nothing is explained, and by the end nothing has changed; Herzog is rebelling here too, against the reassuring nature of the narrative form itself. The final scene shows one of the revolutionaries (Helmut Doring, who bears a chilling resemblance to William Frawley) laughing maniacally at the aforementioned camel. Gradually he begins to cough and show signs of weariness; the film closes with his laugh becoming weaker and weaker. It's a bleak statement - we laugh like idiots until we're tired, and then we die - but I think I understand what drove Herzog to create it. Once you've confronted the possibility that the world actually is this insane, then there isn't much left to fear.

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