The Tin Drum (1979) ****
Directed by: Volker Schlöndorff.
Written by: Jean-Claude Carrièrre & Volker Schlöndorff & Günter Grass & Franz Seitz based on the novel by Grass.
Starring: David Bennent (Oskar Matzerath), Mario Adorf (Alfred Matzerath), Angela Winkler (Agnes Matzerath), Katharina Thalbach (Maria Matzerath), Daniel Olbrychski (Jan Bronski), Tina Engel (Young Anna Koljaiczek), Berta Drews (Anna Koljaiczek), Roland Teubner (Joseph Koljaiczek), Mariella Oliveri (Roswitha), Fritz Hakl (Bebra), Charles Aznavour (Sigismund Markus).
The film follows Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) from well before he was born – first showing us his grandmother, then his parents and finally he comes along. Born in the free state of Danzig, which is occupied by equal numbers of Polish and German people – in the 1920s, Oskar enters a very strange world indeed. He essentially has two fathers – one Polish, one German – because his mother cannot decide which guy she loves more, although she does marry the German (who has the distinct advantage of not being her cousin).
At the age of three two things happen that will shape Oskar for the rest of the film. One is that he gets a tin drum as a present – and he will never be seen without it again, as he takes it everywhere and constantly pounds on it. The other is, disgusted by the behavior of the adults he sees around him, he decides that he will simply stop growing. Remarkably, this actually works. So although Oskar does mature mentally – at least a little – his physical appearance does not change from that point on, even though the movie takes him from there until he is in his 20s.
The movie then, quite clearly, is not meant to be taken realistically. Rather, it is a kind of fantasy – an allegory for Europe at the time in which Oskar makes his decision – which coincides with the Nazis rising to power in Germany – and setting their sights on Danzig and Poland. The point, I think, is that the Germans in a way does exactly what Oskar does – infantilize themselves, give themselves over to the Nazis mindlessly. Hitler can do what he wants, because his people are behaving like children.
This to an extent is offset against Oskar’s musical abilities – that both rebel against the Nazi regime, and yet are also a symbol of it. In perhaps the film’s most memorable scene, Oskar hinds under the bleachers at a Nazi rally, and his insistent drumming – which is more complex, perhaps even sensual, than the Nazi’s band causes utter chaos and confusion, and the rally completely breaks down. On the other hand, Oskar has another gift – his voice. He cannot sing, but can produce a high pitched squeal that shatters glass. This quite clearly is a metaphor for the Kristallnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass in 1938, which signified the Nazis growing violence against the Jews, as some were killed and thousands were shipped to Concentration Camps. It is this conflict in The Tin Drum – the desire to rebel against the Nazis, and also the violent allure of them, that gives The Tin Drum its complexity. It should be noted of course, that the allure is the type of destructive allure that draws children – and eventually even Oskar will realize the need to grow up.
What is remarkable to me about The Tin Drum is how director Volker Schlondorff is able to convey this complexity in a two and a half hour long film. In a novel, you can do many things that a film simply cannot do and although I have never read Grass’ novel, I can only assume that it is more complex than the movie. And yet Schlondorff’s hand at directing this film is masterful – visually alive and exciting from beginning to end, and most significantly, capturing the very strange tone of the film, told from the point of view of someone who may well be insane. In this, he is aided greatly by the performance of Bennent as Oskar, who is quite simply remarkable – especially when you consider he was only 12 when he made the film. He captures this wholly unique character wonderfully well.
The fact that Bennent was 12 is why some insist the movie is one step away from child pornography, and the reason why the film was banned. Like any teenager, Oskar will eventually have a sexual awakening – this time because of the blonde haired, blue eyed Maria (Katharina Thalbach), who when they are both 16, starts looking after him. Maria notices the way Oskar watches her – and enjoys toying with him. At first, it is innocent enough – a game involving candy and spit – but gradually things start to get more and more serious – at least for Oskar, and Maria does not stop it. Although the movie does depict sex between characters who are both 16, and an actor who was 12, it hardly qualifies as child porn. For one thing, the scenes are not really graphic in any way. For another, pornography requires intent – that the maker’s purpose for making it was sexual arousal, and that is clearly not the case here. The scenes in question are vital to the importance of the movie.
It may never be possible to view The Tin Drum, at least in North America, without having to comment on the controversy surrounding it. Kino Video, who had the rights to the video during the Oklahoma controversy, capitalized on it by sticking “Banned in Oklahoma” stickers on the cover. Since the ban was overturned, The Tin Drum has become a popular rental in Oklahoma, and elsewhere. I think it’s a shame, because The Tin Drum deserves to be seen without a critical eye on the watch for pornography. It is a complex, challenging film. A masterpiece of its time.