Die Blechtrommel

(The Tin Drum, West Germany/Poland/France - 1979)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler, Daniel Olbrychski, Katharina Thalbach, Berta Drews
Genre: Drama/Sci-Fi
Director: Volker Schlondorff
Screenplay: Jean-Claude Carriere, Volker Schlondorff, Franz Seitz, & Gunter Grass based on Grass' novel
Cinematography: Igor Luther
Composer: Maurice Jarre, Freidrich Meyer, Lothar Bruhne
Runtime: 142 minutes

"That day, thinking about the grown-up world and my own future, I decided to call a halt. To stop growing then and there and remain a three-year-old, a gnome, once and for all" - Oskar Metzertath

Unforgettable. With imagery such as eels squirming out of the orifices of a dead horse's head and sex acts involving a "3-year-old", Volker Schlondorff's startling surreal allegory will certainly leave indelible images in your head. Whether they are images that you will cherish or revile is the biggest question about the film I cannot answer.

The Tin Drum has many notable supporters. The 1967 novel was one of the primary works that led to top German novelist Gunter Glass finally winning a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. At Cannes, the film tied Frances Ford Coppola's much heralded and vastly overrated Apocalypse Now - whose Redux was laughably dubbed by some critics as the best "new" movie we'd possibly see in 2001 - for the Golden Palm. It received a Cesar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and won that Academy Award. On the other hand, in 1998 the film was banned in Oklahoma due to "child pornography"; a tragedy so ludicrous that instead of trying to bring murders, rapists, and drug dealers to justice, the local police were forced to waste their time going through rental records to track down the copies that were out of the video stores at the time of confiscation.

Challenging and frustrating seem to go hand in hand with The Tin Drum. In spite of oft-blatant symbolism, it is certainly not a film with anything close to a definitive interpretation. Each interpretation will seem to be a somewhat forced conjecture and probably has scenes that invalidate it. That said, there are few, if any, scenes that may not have a purpose and it definitely made more, although not complete, sense to me upon repeated viewing. The Tin Drum is likely to make you contemplate it for a long time or give up on it immediately.

The brown sunless look of the film stock evokes the period as well as sets the mood. Schlondorff has recreated Nazi era Danzig (a Polish city as per WWI treaty) with meticulous detail. The real triumph of the film may simply be in converting the wild images of Glass' novel to the screen. Certainly it was no simply task to memorably and believably film a wide eyed baby in his mother's womb not wanting to come out and enter a chaotic, amoral world he didn't create.

Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) is the most unusual of film heroes. Born with full mental capacity, he knows the sins of his family, which include his father presumably being his mother Agnes Matzerath's (Angela Winkler) cousin Jan Bronski (Daniel Olbrychski) who she is openly promiscuous with when Oskar, her husband Alfred Matzerath (Mario Adorf), and their friends are around. He also understands that his town, split by nationality (German, Polish, and Kashubian) and religion (Protestant, Jewish, and atheist), is doing nothing to prevent the spread of Nazism. A criticism of the film is it's stance against and insight into the Nazi regime is minimal. This is true, but I think the point is that the corruption on a personal level allows if not leads to corruption being mirrored in the rulers of the land. While the citizens are not fundamentally as bad as the Nazi's, they are at fault for going along with if not supporting them during their rise to power.

Oskar looks on at the sins of those around him without shame, unabashed as only a child voyeur could be. However, Oskar, who found a way to halt his growth at the age of three, is equipped with two special powers that he regularly manifests to show his contempt for these actions. The lesser of these two powers - one that some people might not consider a power at all - is inflicting aural torture by repeatedly pounding his tin drum. This red and white lacquered drum may as well be umbilically attached to Oskar, as it only leaving his side for a moment every Thursday when the broken drum is replaced by a new one. That Oskar constantly beats his tin drum can be taken as a sign that, although some actions are worse to him than others, there's nothing about the world that he approves of. It is suggested that Oskar has the power to kill someone by banging an object repeatedly, but this is one of the many points that is implied in a way that allows for a reasonable counterpoint. Oskar's undeniable power is to let out a high pitched shriek that will shatter any glass he directs it at. Those who knew what he was capable of dared not go against him, while those who didn't quickly suffered the consequences. However, the only ones that show any understanding of his powers are those that are like him, the others that stopped their growth.

Everything Oskar does, including stopping his growth, is done in a way that places a moral burden on someone else. A hero Oskar is not. If anything, he's more a little Fuhrer. He uses his powers to control those around him that he wants to keep around and to exterminate those that he doesn't. The only deserving people that escape Oskar's punishment (since he doesn't have the power to stop the world war) are the "soup cooks," a group of children who make Oskar eat their concoction that two live frogs were boiled to death in and two people pissed in. Some people who don't deserve Oskar's punishment get it instead like his poor teacher. She tries to take his drum away because his constant beating interrupts her attempts to instruct, only to be blinded, perhaps, from the broken pieces of her glasses shattering into her eyes.

Hypocrite is a word that quickly comes to mind when thinking about the selfish young boy. Oskar regularly abused his screaming power, breaking glass for the amusement of the fellow children when he was young and when he was older in a circus type act sponsored by the Nazi Propaganda Ministry with fellow growth stoppers. By stopping his growth, Oskar rebelled against the adult world and the pattern of life that had been planned out for him. However, although Oskar's physical appearance remains that of a three-year-old, he grows mentally and goes through a form of puberty like everyone else. As Oskar becomes aware of his sexuality, the urges of his body win out just as they do with the adults he regularly objects to. The worst of these adults is his nymphomaniac mother Agnes Matzerath (Angela Winkler), who happens to be the person he's closest to since he'd like to return to the womb. The events of Oskar's life seem to come full circle when, in spite of his 3-year-old appearance, he presumably fathers a son with Maria, the extremely young future wife (Oskar soon makes Alfred accidentally come in her, and her douching doesn't work so Alfred is forced to marry her) of his theoretical father Alfred. I don't think the point is that Oskar is a hypocrite though. To me it's that he can't escape his adult nature. Like his mother, who knows that having sex with Jan every Thursday is a violation of the church's law, tells the priest in confession, "I try - but I can't."

Like all adults, as the Third Reich grows in power Alfred & Jan are eventually forced to take sides. Actually, Agnes could never choose between the two men, which ultimate leads to her demise. Anyway, a strife in the family is created because Alfred - preferring their uniform and believing they'll win - goes with Nazi Germany, while Jan stays loyal to his country Poland by continuing to work in their post office. Jan seems to have no commitment to anything but his selfish needs though. While he stands by those he likes to an extent, his true colors seem to come out during a later war scene where their friend Kobyella (Mieczyslaw Czechowicz) is wounded. They are in the post office playing cards to distract from how much they fear for their lives while German bombs are exploding everywhere. Jan has to tie Kobyella up by his suspenders so he can continue to play. Jan - ever so oblivious to those around him - doesn't realize Kobyella isn't throwing a card because he's just passed away and says to him, "Hey, don't be a spoilsport. I can't play by myself. Pull yourself together." After he realizes what's happened he starts raving and shaking from the realization he's about to meet his maker, but he still manages to assert to Oskar "I've got a grand hand. A grand hand."

The child is the only one that seems to question the need for the sides. Before war broke out he saw a huge local Nazi rally live on TV, and in the most memorable scene in the film, he goes to it hiding under a bleacher next to their entire band. He beats his drum so loudly that it overwhelms their hundred some odd players. Eventually they give up, and in one of the most surreal scenes they switch to Oskar's tune, "The Blue Danube." Everyone in the audience finds a partner and begins dancing until a downpour scatters everyone, leaving the band leader who didn't go with the flow out in the cold throwing his hat into the dirt. Scholdorff creates his comedy scenes with the style and sense of humor of silent movies, but it's not a happy movie so he refuses to let us enjoy them for too long.

As far as the scenes being objectionable goes, the only one I had a problem with was David Bennent getting out of bed naked. He's not the first nor the last kid to show his bare ass, but considering Mariella Oliveri had a night gown on he could have had something on too. The film is never dishonest to its material. The sex involving Oskar (Katharina Thalbach was in her mid 20's playing the 16-year-old Maria) was explicit enough so you understood what was going on, but no more. It's uncomfortable to be certain, but how else could it be? Being less explicit would have greatly lessened the impact of the material, and to scrap these scenes or use an adult actor in David Bennent's place would drastically alter the entire book. While I wouldn't disagree that a live eel being decapitated is gross, it has to be done to cook it and that's just what Alfred was preparing to do. As Alfred says about Agnes' refusal to eat fish after seeing them caught and cooked, "You've always eaten them and you knew where they came from." Ultimately, if you are squeamish or the kind of person that automatically objects to this type of material you know not to watch and should leave your experience with the film at none.

Much of the movie's success hinges on the debut performance of then 12-year-old David Bennent. Bennent, who only made three other movies, the other big one being Ridley Scott's most horrible movie Legend, gives a memorable performance. Schlondorff probably deserves a ton of credit for leading him to it and coaxing it out of him, but there's no denying that the outcome is extremely successful. Bennent subtle shows the different ages and stages in his life even though he looks exactly the same (you can't make up a person that supposedly isn't growing to alter their look). Bennent is both innocence and intense, even mixing the two when need be. He shows no remorse for his actions, either unaffected or deviously pleasured by them. His narration about his family and especially the world around him is scathing and condescending. He's downright scary when he punctuates the ending of lines like "There was once a credulous people who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really…the gasman!"

The film apparently only covers about the first half of Grass's novel. The next to last segment seems designed to show Oskar, almost at the age where he would go out and make something of his life, as confused as the other adults. He's found a woman Roswitha (Mariella Oliveri) that also stopped her growth to spend most of his time with. They get royal treatment from their sponsors the Nazi's, and try to enjoy it, but in doing so they lose something. Roswitha loses touch with what's important, running for a coffee instead of fleeing an area that's getting bombed. Oskar must not only go along with the world he didn't create, but abuse his power to entertain the adults that run it. At some point we must all not only grow old, but also grow up. Anyone with too much power is liable to abuse it, but anyone with too little is helpless to prevent bad things from happening around them. The film does not espouse the opinion that total non-conformism is the answer, but that totally conforming is giving up on yourself as well as the world. Following Oskar's path obviously wouldn't be advisable even if it was possible, but some lessons should be learned from his story.


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