One of the brightest moments in Tom DiCillo's indie-film satire Living In Oblivion involves a dwarf actor who berates the film-within-a-film's director for partaking in a long tradition of using little people to achieve cheap surrealism. Putting aside The Wizard Of Oz, Werner Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small may be ground zero for that dubious tradition. Barely released in 1971 amid great controversy from both the Left and the Right—and, it might easily be argued, any faction representing good taste—Dwarfs essentially disappeared from public view. But its influence, for better or worse, can be felt in everything from Harmony Korine's Gummo (which borrows from it liberally) to Nine Inch Nails' videos, and with this long-delayed video release, it can finally be appreciated on its own. "I saw the whole film like a continuous nightmare in front of my eyes," Herzog says on the DVD version's audio commentary (conducted as an interview with professional eccentric Crispin Glover), and it's hard to argue with him. The film, which apparently takes place in an alternate universe consisting entirely of little people, follows an uprising at an institution of indeterminate purpose. Demanding a fellow inmate be set free, prisoners trap their supervisor in his office, then proceed to run amok, conduct mock weddings, crucify a monkey, and set potted flowers on fire with gasoline. Whether viewed as a powerful political/philosophical allegory or a grotesque display of willful perversity (and it's a lot easier, though probably less rewarding, to see it as the latter), Even Dwarfs Started Small is not easily forgotten: By its conclusion, it truly assumes the quality of a nightmare. Even those who find their patience stretched, or are unable to compare it favorably with Tod Browning's Freaks, should enjoy the typically bizarre and enlightening commentary track, which finds Herzog offering up such observations as, "Chickens are something that frighten me because they are so stupid… When you really take a close look into the eyes of a chicken, it's really, really weird." Part of an ongoing series of Herzog reissues, Dwarfs once again confirms the director's place as the sort of genius madman usually thought to exist only as a stereotype.
More from The A.V. Club