137. THE TIN DRUM [DIE BLECHTROMMEL] (1979)

“[Günter Grass] called our [first draft] script ‘Protestant and Cartesian.’ It was lacking the irrational dimension of time, the nodal points where everything becomes confused and collapses in an illogical and tragicomic way. He wants more hard realism on the one hand, and on the other, more courage in the unreal. Imagination as a part of unreality –Oskar’s reality… Another visit to Grass, almost a year after the first, this time with the finished script. It is now more ‘Catholic,’ and less rational…”–Volker Schlöndorff, in his Tin Drum production diary

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Volker Schlöndorff

FEATURING: David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler, Daniel Olbrychski, Katharina Thalbach

PLOT: At the age of three, Oskar, a boy who always carries his beloved tin drum and whose scream can shatter glass, decides that he does not want to grow up, and throws himself down the cellar stairs to stunt his growth. As Hitler rises to power, his mother becomes depressed and kills herself by eating raw fish; his uncle, who may be his real father, is killed by the Nazis. Still looking like a child, Oskar lives through Fascism and World War II and has love affairs, eventually joining the Nazis and entertaining the soldiers with his drum.

Still from The Tin Drum (1979)

BACKGROUND:

  • Die Blechtrommel [The Tin Drum] is based on Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass’ schizophrenic 1959 novel of the same name. The film adaptation only covers approximately the first half of the book.
  • Prolific screenwriter  was a frequent collaborator with Luis Buñuel; scripts for the Certifed Weird films Belle de Jour and The Milky Way count among his 138 writing credits. Carrière appears in the film (in the director’s cut) as Rasputin.
  • Actor David Bennent had a “growth disorder” and was actually twelve years old when the movie was filmed.
  • The Tin Drum is set in Danzig, which at the time of Oskar’s birth was a Free City located between Germany and Poland, although the population was mostly German.
  • The Tin Drum shared the 1979 Palme D’Or with Apocalypse Now. It also won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
  • In the United States, New World Pictures—s company—distributed the picture. Some of New World’s other releases that year were Humanoids from the Deep and Shogun Assassin.
  • The movie ran into censorship problems due to brief sex scenes between David Bennent and Katharina Thalbach (then 24 years old, but portraying a 16-year-old). The oddest case occurred in Oklahoma in 1997, almost twenty years after the film’s release, when a judge ruled that the film violated state child pornography laws which banned even non-explicit depictions of sex between minors. Police seized videotapes from the homes of people who had rented the movie. The documentary Banned in Oklahoma, included on some editions of The Tin Drum as an extra, details the controversy. The film was later vindicated, and today Oklahomans no longer need fear being labeled as pedophiles for watching 1979’s Best Foreign Film winner.
  • In 2010 Volker Schlöndorff created a director’s cut of the film, restoring about 20 minutes of footage which had been removed to shorten the running time.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Wild-eyed Oskar pounding away on his drum in an insane, trance-like fury is undoubtedly the film’s emblematic image, although the horse’s head filled with eels is probably the most shocking one.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The Tin Drum is a comic nightmare about “little people’s” acquiescence to Fascism in the 1930s and 1940s; as Germany goes insane, children refuse to grow up, eels breed in horse’s heads, and Santa Claus turns into the Gas Man.


Original German trailer for The Tin Drum

COMMENTS: Many people believe that Oskar’s decision in The Tin Drum not to grow up past the age of three is a refusal to succumb to adult corruption, and that his glass-shattering shrieks and drum-beating are a howl of protest against the rising tide of Fascism in Germany. On the other hand, those few critics who did not embrace the film, like Roger Ebert, often have almost the exact opposite reaction: Oskar seems to them nothing more than a petulant brat, not a legitimate symbol of resistance at all. I can’t fully agree or disagree with either camp; the situation is more ambiguous than that. Although The Tin Drum has the shape of a fable, the symbolism of the film doesn’t line up in a mechanical way. The Tin Drum isn’t an allegory so much as it is a nightmare, told by one who lived through it and coped in the only way possible to him.

It should go without saying that The Tin Drum would not have been possible if the filmmakers had not stumbled onto David Bennent, who is probably the only person in the world who could have brought Oskar to life. Physically, Bennent, who suffered from an unspecified growth disorder, was perfect for the part. At twelve years of age, he had the stature of a six-year old, but the face of an older boy on the brink of adolescence. (Amusingly, except for being bald, Oskar looks exactly the same as a newborn as he does at three years of age). His entire countenance is disturbing every time we see him dressed in short pants or a sailor suit. He should be adorable, and all the conventional indicia of childhood cuteness are present in his big blue eyes and blond bowl haircut, but he’s also uncanny and out-of-place playing a child. He looks too wise, he sees too much. His eyes are unbelievable. Glued open like he’s hopped up on amphetamines, they are too encompassing even when he’s happy and satisfied; when angered, his face turns demonic. Bennent’s advanced age helps him portray a man trapped in a child’s body convincingly; when he shows sexual feelings for sixteen-year old Maria, we can accept and even sympathize with his lust. The scenes of the youngsters exploring their bodies, with the help of fizzy sherbert powder, would have been too horrifying with a younger actor; with Bennent, they reach just the right level of disturbing. In fact, Oskar always looks wrong and out-of-place onscreen, and if we eventually come to accept this weird-looking tyke as a three year old, it’s only through the combination of Bennent’s talent and the script’s straight-faced insistence that this body is three years old.

Children commonly symbolize innocence, and this may be why we want to sympathize with Oskar and believe that he defies aging as an act of protest against adulthood, against Nazism. But the fact is that Oskar’s refusal to grow up is selfish, and it renders him impotent and incapable of opposing, or even perceiving, the darkness around him. He is unwilling to recognize evil; at birth, he is promised a tin drum, and since that moment the toy is all he lives for and all he cares about. One character almost dies trying to retrieve his precious toy from a high shelf for him as soldiers spray their house with bullets. Because he is a child—and remember, he has chosen to be a child—Oskar is able to walk away from the Nazis unscathed when they seize and execute his Polish uncle. With willful naiveté, he happily rolls his drum to welcome Hitler’s arrival into Danzig. Later, little Oskar even dons a Nazi uniform and joins a dwarf entertainment corps where he amuses stormtroopers with his ability to shatter glass on command. Even his piercing scream is a reference to Kristallnacht (the “night of broken glass”); but is his howling a prediction of the pogroms, or does it suggest his complicity? In one famous scene, Oskar sneaks under bleachers and joyfully pounds away on his drum during a Nazi rally. As the boy plays along, the band’s tune changes from a martial air to the Blue Danube Waltz, and the Hitler youth lower their saluting arms and begin dancing. This suggests that magical Oskar has the ability to alter people’s behavior, but he does not avail himself of this power throughout the rest of the movie. He goes along with the Nazis because, as a child, he cannot imagine resisting authority. Oskar’s innocence is culpable; like the German people of his era, he refuses to recognize Nazism for what it is.

In the novel, Oskar was a schizophrenic and an unreliable narrator who spoke to Jesus and related his story from the asylum. In the literal medium of film, Oskar’s insanity isn’t clear; it’s the world around him that’s mad. Oskar’s grandmother conceives when she hides a refugee under her skirts. His mother has an incestuous affair with his uncle, who may be the boy’s real father. Oskar is born with a fully formed intellect, and we first see him from a womb’s-eye view. In one of the restored scenes that didn’t make the original cut of the film, the young boy imagines Rasputin at an orgy. He gives drumsticks to a statue of the baby Jesus, and gets angry when it won’t play for him. The scenes of the supposedly three-year old boy pleasuring teenage Maria are strange and disturbing; for foreplay, he pours candy powder into her hand or navel, and then spits into it. His mother commits suicide by eating fish. In one of the most bizarre and inexplicable moments in the film, a fisherman hauls in his catch. It’s the decapitated head of a horse, filled with eels. Oskar’s father is delighted; his mother vomits. Dad cooks up the seafood buffet and tries to force mom to eat it; they have a terrible fight, and she retires to her room and cries, only to be comforted by her lover, Oskar’s uncle; as Oskar spies on them, her sobs turn to moans of pleasure.

What do the eels in the horse head mean? Are they perverse renderings of the Christian fish symbol, or are they slimy Freudian penises? Or are they irrational beings, materializations of the madness of the era? Like most great art, the symbolism of The Tin Drum does not function is a simple way, with X standing unambiguously for Y. The situation of the common German folk in the 1930s was not simple and unambiguous, so why would a story about them be? Oskar is both an innocent and a monster, a horrified observer and an active collaborator. Roger Ebert cleverly suggests that “allegories have trouble standing for something else if they are too convincing as themselves,” then dismisses The Tin Drum, essentially, for being too effective as itself. He complains that it is not an allegory. So what? He’s imposing his expectations on the tale, his own desire to make sense of irrational, impulsive, insane phenomenon of Fascism. Günter Grass would criticize that reading as too “Protestant and Cartesian.” The Tin Drum creates its own relationship to reality, half allegorical, half phantasmagorical. It’s not the simple story of a boy who protests Facsism by refusing to grow up. It’s a story of horrors beyond rationality. It’s the story of eels slithering out of a horse’s head.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…because the story it tells is so outsized, bizarre, funny, and eccentric, the movie compels attention.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…the complexities of Grass’s book are largely sacrificed for eye-catching scenes of the grotesque and the bizarre.”–Geoff Andews, Time Out

“…[succeeds] in its aim of depicting a frightening world where reason is overthrown.”–Halliwell’s Film Guide

IMDB LINK: The Tin Drum (1979)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Tin Drum (1979) – The Criterion Collection – The trailer, a “three reasons” video, “10 Things I Learned,” and 2 essays

The Tin Drum Press Notes – Janus Films’ press notes for the release of the restored version of the film, with comments from director Schlöndorff, novelist Grass, and screenwriter Carrière, plus a production diary

‘Tin Drum’ doesn’t violate Oklahoma’s child-porn laws, rules federal judge – News article about the Oklahoma censorship flap

DVD INFO: The latest “director’s cut” Criterion edition of The Tin Drum (buy) has its pluses and minuses. The major positive, naturally, is the inclusion of twenty minutes seamlessly integrated extra footage (although it would have been nice if there were a way to access the new material separately and see what was added). A new hour-long interview with director Schlöndorff, Günter Grass reading the “Platform” chapter from his original novel so we can see how his intricate prose is translated to film, a twenty-minute video essay by film historian Timothy Corrigan placing the Tin Drum in the context of New German Cinema, and a number of short contemporaneous television interviews make up the extra features on this new 2-disc release. This version of the film is also available, with identical special features, on Blu-ray (buy).

Unfortunately, several valuable extras from Criterion’s still-available 2004 release (buy) were dropped when the upgrade was released. Foremost among the missing features in Schlöndorff’s commentary; also not making the cut is the 2004 documentary Banned in Oklahoma about the child pornography charges levied against the film in 1997.

(This movie was nominated for review by “ubermolch.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “137. THE TIN DRUM [DIE BLECHTROMMEL] (1979)”

  1. ” The Tin Drum is a comic nightmare about “little people’s” acquiescence to Fascism in the 1930s and 1940s”

    I randomly clicked on this review in November 2016, a disturbing portent.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *