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Examining the Role of Disability in Herzog’s Even Dwarves Started Small

by David Church

David Church graduated from Western Washington University in 2005 with a B.A. in English. He plans to advance into graduate work in film studies in 2006.

"Dreams and nightmares do not follow the rules of political correctness."
— Werner Herzog, Herzog on Herzog. (56)

Werner Herzog’s 1970 film Even Dwarves Started Small is noteworthy as one of the only films in history to use an all-dwarf cast (along with the all-dwarf Western The Terror of Tiny Town (Sam Newfield, 1938)). It is often described as a surreal allegory, presenting a story in which, as clichéd as it might sound, rebelling inmates quite literally run the asylum from which they escape—an allegory nihilistically critiquing “petite bourgeois sentiments” and the “world revolution” of the 1960’s. The film was banned in Germany as “anarchistic and blasphemous” (Herzog 59), and it earned death threats against its director for supposedly portraying dwarves as monstrous. The film opens with the smallest of the dwarves, Hombre (Helmut Döring), refusing to talk while being interrogated about his part in a revolt at an unnamed institution—and then the rest of the film flashes back to the events of the revolt itself, a very loose narrative based around acts of wanton destruction. Dwarves uses images of disability as multiple metaphors to create an allegory of society in the late 1960’s—but despite some positive aspects of the portrayal of disabled characters, they are outweighed by contradictory aspects to the representation which reinforce negative stereotypes of disability.

The entire diegetic world is populated by dwarves, as we see when an outsider, a dwarf woman, stops her car at the institution and asks the rebelling inmates for directions. Because all of the actors are dwarves, the camera primarily films from a low level—the dwarves’ perspective—in order for the viewer to better identify with them. This is essential to Herzog because, he says, “the world is created in a way that is not theirs” (Commentary); except for the actors, everything else is “full-sized” (i.e., designed for nondisabled people), and therefore out of proportion from the dwarves’ point of view. This is further highlighted by the use of extreme long shots, often set against expansive landscapes stretching off for miles, which emphasize the small size of the characters. He says that his film is “not an exploitation film” because he is not portraying the dwarves as monstrous, but rather that the world surrounding them—“the world of consumer goods, the world of everyday instruments like a motorcycle, like a doorknob, like a car, a bed, a chair”—is the real monstrosity (Commentary).

However, Herzog’s viewpoint here is a bit problematic, having both positive and negative aspects. Positively, because virtually everyone in the film is a dwarf, the actual impairment of dwarfism ceases to be an issue. Therefore, the medical and rehabilitation models of disability—in which, according to Lennard Davis, disability is respectively seen as “a disease in need of a cure,” and as bodies “in need of repair, concealment, remediation, and supervision” (40-41)—are not operating, since the inmates are being supervised because of their asocial behavior, not because of their physical impairment. (Indeed, Herzog says that after screening Dwarves for federal prisoners in Germany, the prisoners felt that the film was written just for them—for their anger, gloom, and sense of rebellion (Commentary).) Due to an all-dwarf cast, the absence of these prevalent models of disability—which are harmful, by positing persons with disabilities as “defective” from the social “norm,” and thus in need of paternalistic oversight—seems positive because it appears to avoid (although not entirely, as will be discussed later) the common cinematic practice of using “abnormal” bodies to visually signify, via a “simple negative stereotype of disability” (Sutherland 17), a character’s abnormal psychology; since the dwarf inmates are being supervised by dwarf instructors, the link is not visually made between the inmates’ disability and their captivity.

Unlike the medical and rehabilitation models of disability, a social (or constructivist) model makes the distinction that impairment is a physical or mental loss which “only becomes a disability when the ambient society creates environments with barriers—affective, sensory, cognitive, or architectural” (Davis 40-41). Dwarves seems to fit this more positive model because the dwarves (impaired by their body size) are disabled by the “full-sized” world they live in. However, there is a danger that the smaller size and playfully destructive attitudes of the characters will make them seem like children who need to be disciplined and controlled—which would justify negative paternalistic attitudes toward persons with disabilities.

Because there are only dwarves in the full-sized diegetic world, their disability assumes a metaphoric, allegorical role. “The dwarves in the film are not freaks,” Herzog says; rather, “[they are] well proportioned, charming, and beautiful people.” That is, they represent full-sized, non-disabled, “normal” people—while it is commerce and consumerism (exemplifying “the society we have created for ourselves”) which have together become such a monstrous “impairment” that we become alienated from our world (56-57). It is this consumerist world, bound up with “petite bourgeois” sentiments about property and propriety (e.g., in an unscripted moment, one of the characters is shocked when she pulls a doorknob off, and then has, in Herzog’s words, the “little petite bourgeois reflex” to put it back on), that the dwarves rebel against, “destroying the world around them” which no longer makes sense. They destroy technology (such as a typewriter, a truck, phone lines, etc.), money, buildings, and settings of traditional manners (such as a dinner setting in the courtyard). However, their revolt takes a more nihilistic turn as they also take pleasure in destroying natural life (which they mention having an antipathy toward), such as a lone palm tree, potted flowers in full bloom, and a mother pig suckling her young. The dwarves resent various aspects of their confinement at the institution (which, with the motto “Cleanliness and Order,” represents society), from the powdered milk they drink, to the animals running around the complex, to the cross-country runs that are supposed to improve them. “When we behave nobody cares,” one of them remarks angrily, “but when we are bad, nobody forgets.” This is why, Herzog says, the dwarves are “very, very, normal and they behave and they rebel in a way that you can understand” (Commentary).

A large part of the metaphoric role of the dwarves is tied up in this “understandable” rebellion. Though he clearly believes that commerce has become a monstrous, alienating force in today’s civilization, Herzog is also using the characters’ nihilistic revolt against society and nature alike to ridicule the world revolution that was taking place during the late 1960’s. Although several critics branded him a fascist for this critique, he explains that “the ideas and actions sweeping the world in 1968” were not for him because,

contrary to most of my peers, I had already been much further out into the world. I had traveled, I had made films, I had already taken on responsibilities that very few people my age had. For me, this very rudimentary analysis that Germany was a fascist and repressive prison state, which had to be overpowered by a socialist utopian revolution, seemed quite wrong. I knew the revolution would not succeed because it was rooted in such an inadequate analysis of what was really going on, so I did not participate. (56)

Therefore, the dwarves represent the student protesters, overreacting against a capitalist institution that cannot simply be overthrown. The ironic title of the film implies that the protesters, like their literally small celluloid counterparts, are a figuratively “small” force, starting from a tiny grassroots movement—but ultimately doomed to fail, their naïve efforts resulting in the inadvertent destruction of everything worth saving.

Though the opening of the film shows that the inmates are back in custody, Herzog says that their revolt “is not a real defeat because for them it is a really good, memorable day; you can see the joy in their faces” (55). However, it is arguable that, contrary to the director’s intentions, using an all-disabled cast to represent a negative view of the protestors exploits society’s practice of containing disability through humor and a sense of the carnivalesque. Herzog calls Dwarves the “darkest of comedies you can imagine.” He says that many scenes are “very humorous and funny, but at the same time very painful [to watch]; you feel like laughing but at the same time you bite your own tongue” (Commentary). One such scene, which Herzog mentions, involves a long, unbroken take as Hombre repeatedly tries in vain to get up on a bed that is far taller than him. The humor in the scene comes from watching a man with a disability repeatedly fail to accomplish what would be an everyday task for an able-bodied person (i.e., a person with disabilities who watches the scene would no doubt find it less funny than an able-bodied person). For someone to endure such struggles, in order to do something an able-bodied person would find very ordinary, makes the dwarves’ lives seem an absurd existence—and the able-bodied viewer thus pities the disabled characters. Pity and amusement are two emotions which seldom mix, and such scenes become “very painful” to watch because the viewer feels guilty at the impulse to laugh at another’s “misfortune.” However, pity also operates to make its subjects seem weak and in need of help, which plays into the paternalistic assumption that persons with disabilities are essentially different and inferior. The dwarves’ activities also seem carnivalesque—outrageous and almost cartoonish at times—which allows viewers to distance themselves from the film because of the surreal quality of the diegetic world; all allegories aside, the fantastic nature of the film’s diegetic world allows Dwarves to merely seem like a temporary digression into a strange, Otherly universe.

Herzog describes the film as “a very profound…collective nightmare” that can be contained “by naming it, by filming it, by doing it, by showing it”; this act of containment, he says, “somehow reduces the horror…[and] puts it into a safe place” (Commentary). The film’s dreamlike quality is emphasized by its barren, lunar setting: a complex of buildings standing at the edge of vast lava fields (filmed in the Canary Islands, where a volcano had obliterated the natural vegetation). Much of Dwarves is shot with a handheld camera, giving the footage of the surreal diegetic world an unnervingly realistic, documentary-style quality (albeit a quality which does make the film seem any less of a carnivalesque nightmare, like a sort of horror film). The dwarves come to represent a sense of desperation because they have to struggle in a world that is disproportionate to themselves—a world that seems built to place them in a position of inferiority. Herzog calls this world filled with dwarves “a scary thing,” describing the “concept” of a dwarf as a “subconscious” element of the psyche (Commentary):

We all have a dwarf inside us. It is as if there is something of an essence or a concentrated form of each of us that is screaming to get out and that is a perfectly formed representation of who we are. […] It is a very real nightmare for some people who wake up at night and know that basically, deep down, they are just a midget. Sometimes when I was working on the film, I would wake up in terror at night and had to feel around with my arms and legs: was I still as big as I was when I went to sleep? I have found that people essentially react to the film depending on how they react to the dwarf in themselves. (57)

A dwarf is thus seen as a “nightmarish,” less than fully human creature, more a sign of psychic turmoil than a real person; by this logic, a dwarf’s life is something tragic, to be feared. Here, Herzog is unconsciously contradicting himself to some degree, because using dwarves to connote an anguished mentality or existence subtly uses the negative technique of using abnormal bodies as a visual signifier for abnormal minds—which, on a purely visual level, has hitherto been avoided.

The outlandish nature of the diegetic world is made more apparent by Herzog’s inclusion of unscripted footage, shot on location, in which chickens cannibalize each other; the inmates also set two roosters against each other in a fight to the death. Chickens possess a “profound stupidity,” according to Herzog, thinking of them as “the most horrifying, cannibalistic, and nightmarish creatures in this world” (99)—some sort of living statement that “there is something ultimately wrong in creation itself.” There is “something violent about animals amongst themselves” (Commentary), Herzog says of the chickens—which evokes the instructor’s dialogue that the rebelling inmates will eventually kill each other, but would also fight amongst themselves and kill any of the better-disciplined inmates if locked up together. Though Herzog is using his disabled cast to represent society as a whole, this correlation could be perceived to imply that the already “nightmarish” dwarves are as naturally violent as “stupid” lower animals like chickens, and perhaps that being disabled is an example of “creation gone wrong.”

Furthermore, there is an overarching problem with Herzog’s use of disability-as-metaphor—regardless of the various positive aspects. Filmmakers who use disability as a metaphor “are not actually portraying the lives of disabled people,” says Jenny Morris; rather, disability is being used as a means to explore issues that affect both disabled and nondisabled people—in this case, dwarfism is used to critique consumerism and the social unrest of the 1960’s. Disability-as-metaphor can be “the safest way” for the nondisabled audience to explore these issues, she continues, because “they can separate themselves quite easily from the disabled character, who is quite clearly ‘different’ from the ‘normal’ man” (24). By making this differentiation, ableist viewers can succeed in “singling out disability as the Other by which it defines itself” ( Davis 117), and the dwarves thereby become perceived as inferior.

The only people who clearly seem to be “disabled” (i.e., relative to the other dwarves) from a medical standpoint are the two dwarves with blindness, whose disability sets them apart as somehow “alien” from the others—resulting in coordinated harassment (e.g., spoiling their games and meals) by those with sight. Because dwarfism is not considered a disability (via the medical model) in an all-dwarf diegesis, blindness becomes the operating disability by which the majority group, thinking of themselves as “normates” (i.e., “the social figure through which people can represent themselves as definitive human beings,” as defined by Rosemarie Garland Thomson (qtd. in Davis 38)), justifies their oppression of a supposedly “weaker” disabled minority. The “blind” ones do not socialize with the others, often entertaining themselves on the opposite side of the complex, and they are not included in a sense of community. Unlike the rest of the dwarves, they seem more in touch with nature, sometimes sitting in quiet contemplation while the others raise hell elsewhere; this suggests not only that they are unable to participate in the chaos as equals, but also evokes “the fallacy that the loss of one sense leads to the miraculous improvement of the other four” (Darke 37), in that their sensory limitations have lead to a (much) greater appreciation of nature than that possessed by the other characters. The hardhearted treatment of the two “disabled” characters by the other dwarves illustrates the way in which nondisabled people exploit the disabled as supposedly inferior; however, this exploitation extends to anyone who shows weakness or difference—the film thus conveying a very bleak view of human nature. We see this functioning when the rebelling dwarves, for their own amusement, force the two smallest members of their group into the instructor’s room and urge them to have sex against their will (which is the same scene mentioned earlier, in which Hombre struggles to get onto the bed).

Though their plans to “go get some women” come to naught, the dwarves end up finding some of the instructor’s pornographic magazines, which depict “full-sized” (i.e., nondisabled) nude women—the only able-bodied normates represented in the film. The dwarves seem very amused by the photos, which they decalre the instructor a “pig” for possessing—yet they refer to the nude women as “lovely” and “beautiful,” objectifying the images through a focus on the faces and breasts. There are no comments making a distinction between their dwarfism and the nondisabled women they are viewing; Herzog says that the dwarves view both the nude women and themselves as “normal.” “I think every body—I mean, the physical body—is a normal body,” he says; looking at the porn is justified as a reflection of the dwarves’ normalcy because it is a normal activity that young men do, disabled or not (Commentary).

It is notable that characters with disabilities are often stereotyped in films as “asexual” or “sexually abnormal” (that is, when disabled sex is mentioned at all, which is uncommon); as Leslie Harris says, “even in those instances where the filmmaker does portray a disabled protagonist as a sexual being, the positive message is undermined by other negative stereotypes.” In Dwarves, sexual impulses are unrestricted during the anarchic revolt (perhaps referring to the “free love” motto of the 1960’s counterculture), but those impulses involve either the objectification of women (e.g., the pornography scene), or violent coercion and force (e.g., the two dwarves being forced into the room to have sex, or the interrogation scene in which Hombre and another man are accused of trying to assault one of the women). Though sexual impulses are portrayed, it is a violent and negative sexuality which coincides with the bleak view of human nature discussed earlier—thus reinforcing Harris’s argument that persons with disabilities are represented in ultimately negative ways as “incapable of normal sexual relations.” Although the dwarves’ actions within the diegesis are being used allegorically to suggest human nature/sexuality in general, the possibility still exists that their disability will be perceived as a signifier of deviant mentality.

Herzog says that the only kindred film to Dwarves is Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), which he saw years later and considers “one of the greatest films ever made.” “Even though the monsters are portrayed with real dignity and tenderness in Freaks,” he says, “it seems that Browning was almost apologetic about the film and maybe never knew what a great piece of work he had created” (60). Unlike Browning, Herzog is clearly proud of Dwarves, openly acknowledging that it will always be controversial, but also remarking that the nightmarish quality of the film will make it exist longer than his more critically accepted works (Commentary). However, like Browning’s film, Even Dwarves Started Small may seek to portray persons with disabilities as very human, and “larger” society as monstrous—but it cannot avoid negative stereotypes of disability which taint its more positive objectives.

Sources Cited

Darke, Paul. “Eye Witness.” Framed: Interrogating Disability in the Media. Ed. Ann Pointon with Chris Davies. London: British Film Institute, 1997.

Davis, Lennard J. Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions. New York and London: New York University Press, 2002.

Harris, Leslie. “Disabled Sex and the Movies.” Disability Studies Quarterly. Fall 2002.

Herzog, Werner. Commentary Track. Even Dwarves Started Small. DVD. Anchor Bay, 1999.

Herzog, Werner. Herzog on Herzog. Ed. Paul Cronin. London: Faber and Faber, 2002.

Morris, Jenny. “A Feminist Perspective.” Framed: Interrogating Disability in the Media. Ed. Ann Pointon with Chris Davies. London: British Film Institute, 1997.

Sutherland, Allan. “Black Hats and Twisted Bodies.” Framed: Interrogating Disability in the Media . Ed. Ann Pointon with Chris Davies. London: British Film Institute, 1997.

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