Fervent gypsy warbling as a wizened little person sits on a chair, facing the camera, numbered plaque in his hands: a mug shot, as it turns out, though as Werner Herzog's 360° pan surveys the barren setting (white walls against dark, crumbly volcanic land), life is revealed as the actual prison. Herzog's most confrontational work is also his most conceptual, the all-dwarf cast reflecting the 1938 munchkin-oater Terror of Tiny Town, compassion and curiosity replacing facetious gawking -- in one of the most incongruously lyrical scenes, the gang gathers 'round to spot a bug collection in a cigar box, wasps and beetles decked in bridal getup, each met with admiring coos. Barely a break from their bacchanalian smash-a-ton, for the mood is dismantling anarchy, the inmates taking over an institution and declaring war not just on the fatuous ruler (Pepi Hermine) but also on Nature: victims of the rampage include chickens, a burly sow nursing a dozen piglets, the president's prize palm tree, a typewriter, a couple of blind inmates with aviator-goggles and baguette-sized white canes, and, most of all, the building's van, made to drive in circles before dumped into a ravine. All set to ecstatically gleeful laughter. Coming in the heels of the '68 botched-revolution atmosphere, Herzog's reeling carnival was accused of projecting the destructive uselessness of revolt, yet the closest these undersized rebels come to a manifesto ("When we behave, nobody cares. But when we are bad, nobody forgets!") serves also as a cry for the uniqueness of the grotesque as indispensable to humanity. Indeed, the disproportionate absurdity of dwarves raising hell in a stark, "normal" sized (thus, oversized) world has a garish beauty and humor, in no small portion due to Herzog's affection for his performers -- a mock marriage gets forced onto the two littlest rebels, who, unable to climb on to a huge white bed, end up giggling over porno mags. Human folly starts small but can only grow, a monkey crucifixion amid torched flowers and "Hombre" (Helmut Döring) anticipating the Butt-Head laugh, caught, appropriately, between snickering and chocking. Cinematography by Thomas Mauch. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce