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Werner Herzog and the little people.

Summary: BEIRUT: Emigration being what it is, Germany is, for some folks, an exotic idea - compared to Australia, say, or the Americas or COte d'Ivoire. For others, 1970 is an even more inaccessible thing, a place where the menace to The Free World wasn't Islam but Communism, where both The Free and The Reds devoted quite a lot of resources to destroying the world

Review

BEIRUT: Emigration being what it is, Germany is, for some folks, an exotic idea -- compared to Australia, say, or the Americas or CE[sup.3]te d'Ivoire. For others, 1970 is an even more inaccessible thing, a place where the menace to The Free World wasn't Islam but Communism, where both The Free and The Reds devoted quite a lot of resources to destroying the world. Then there's the mind of Werner Herzog, surely the most exotic and inaccessible of all.

So a screening of Herzog's 1970 film "Auch Zwerge Haben Klein Angefangen" (Even Dwarves Started Small) is a disorienting, nerve-jangling experience. The film was projected at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil as part of "Beyond the Borders," its ongoing cycle of films by the famed German auteur.

"Dwarves" opens upon the visage of a "little person" ("dwarf" as Herzog's title would have it) sitting on a stool, fiddling with a number plate -- it looks uncannily like something you'd find on the front of a Lebanese Mercedes -- which it seems he wants to hold up so the series of numbers can be read by the camera.

This fellow, you learn, is Hombre (Helmut DE[micro]ring). For much of this film, DE[micro]ring's character is made to repeat snippets of what he's heard people say and laugh maniacally -- in that squeaky-voiced little person's way of laughing. His is the most challenging role in the film.

Hombre is one of a cluster of dwarves who, for reasons that are never spelled out, have been confined to an unnamed institution in the German countryside, one resembling a minimum-security prison or an insane asylum.

The audience listens in as the administrator interrogates Hombre about some unexplained disruption that appears now to have been quelled. Hombre swears he will never squeal on his friends. He never does, but Herzog accommodates his audience's curiosity by making the balance of his film resemble a flashback recounting what has happened.

One of the film's several intellectual and aesthetic conceits is that, though Herzog devotes the better part of 96 minutes to showing you "what happened," you still emerge from the theater bewildered as to what you've seen.

As the flashback sequence opens, the administrator (Pepi Hermine), himself a dwarf, has confined one of his inmates, Pepe (Gerd Gickel), to his office. He's tied Pepe to a chair and is interrogating him about some ill-defined malfeasance, while Pepe chuckles amusedly. The camera revisits this ineffectual interrogation several times.

Outside, meanwhile, Pepe's fellow inmates have overthrown the administration of the institution and are now running diminutively amok.

At first, their revolutionary behavior amounts to standing outside the administrator's office and casting abuse upon him, demanding that he release Pepe. The administrator takes the threat seriously enough to lock himself and Pepe in the office.

The film moves forward in what seems an improvised manner, with little changing in the balance of power between administrator and inmates.

The detainees never make a break for it.

The administrator ultimately does leave his office only to be waylaid by a dead tree that he feels the need to challenge to a contest -- he says he can hold out his arm longer than the tree can keep its lone branch extended.

The "action" of the film is largely comprised of the ever-more bizarre acts of rebellion the rebels concoct.

They start a pickup truck in the institution's courtyard, tie the wheel hard to the right and block the accelerator in place, so that it drives in circles for most of the film.

One inmate devotes several scenes to cracking eggs and emptying the contents into the dirt. Later she pours gasoline into some potted plants and sets them alight. She and her colleagues assemble a mock banquet that descends into their throwing the crockery at the perpetual motion pickup truck.

The rebels contrive a mock wedding for Hombre and another inmate of approximately the same size, then march the pair to a room where they're expected to couple. Hombre has no desire to perform. Anyway, he's not dexterous enough to climb up on the bed beside his new bride.

Some of the rebels' gestures are less harmless. Two of their number, who live isolated from the rest of the inmates, are blind and the others find some jolly sport in playing pranks on them. Later, they beat one of the blind dwarves, saying that they've already killed his friend.

This isn't the only hint of cruelty. The blind inmates keep a caged monkey and, late in the film, the others crucify the unfortunate creature and parade it around in a solemn procession that doesn't bode well for its future.

Chickens suffer quite a bit of rough treatment over the course of this business. One disturbing leitmotif finds a chicken pecking at the carcass of a deceased fellow. In another, an aggressive chicken chases after another, one-legged, chicken, seemingly with malign intent.

These shenanigans seem, by degrees, childish or insane, bewildering, tedious or, at least for some in the Metropolis audience, hilariously funny.

The cruelty of "Even Dwarfs Started Small" has provoked plenty of hostility over the last 40-odd years.

Audiences might not object to watching bad behavior in prisons or insane asylums. Casting all these inmates as dwarves -- particularly when some audience members seem to find some of their behavior funny just because it's performed by little people -- seems to cross into the realm of cheap humor characterized by pastimes like dwarf-tossing.

A Herzog partisan might argue that the film's uncomfortable gaze upon cruelty was exactly its point.

When you cluster a clutch of characters within a building and don't let them leave, you invite societal metaphor. Insofar as the film works with physical profiling, incarceration and cruelty (even if it's never said that the characters are institutionalized because of their size), it's tempting to assume that Herzog is winking at his countrymen's (then still-recent) experiences with national socialism.

Was Herzog making a political point, suggesting cruelty is as much the currency of revolution as it is the authoritarianism it seeks to overthrow? Or did he want to suggest that human behavior defies reason, that you can show what happened but never know why it happened.

At the close of the film, as Hombre coughs and struggles to keep laughing as Herzog commands, it seems he ultimately said something else.

"Beyond the Borders" continues at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil until April 5. Tickets go for LL5,000 apiece and nearly all the films are spoken or subtitled in English. For more information, please phone 01-20-40-80, or else see www.metropoliscinema.net.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Apr 4, 2011
Words:1175
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