The course of German history in the first half of the 20th century does not make for a pretty picture. It’s wise to keep this in mind when watching Volker Schlöndorff’s masterful adaption of Günther Grass’s novel, The Tin Drum: what you are seeing on the screen is metaphor, and the reality was much, much worse. Fortunately, while Schlöndorff (and Grass) harbor no illusions about their characters or their homelands (Grass was born near Gdansk, Schlöndorff in Wiesbaden), both managed to maintain their sense of humor, so it’s not at all a chore to watch The Tin Drum, even if it’s sometimes painful.
The Tin Drum is a picaresque tale of a young boy named Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent), who serves as a witness to the course of European history from the ‘20s through World War II. The film begins with a prologue of sorts, depicting the singularly undignified conception of Oscar’s mother Agnes (Angela Winkler) in a potato field. Oskar’s grandmother takes pity on an arsonist fleeing the police, hiding him under her ample skirts, and he takes advantage of the opportunity thus presented. That establishes the tone for the film—no illusions about the nobility of human nature here, thank you very much.
Jumping forward a few decades, the adult Agnes is carrying on an affair with her cousin Jan (Daniel Olbrychski), but marries Alfred Matzzerath (Mario Adorf). When Oskar (ostensibly Alfred’s son, but in fact Jan’s) is born, he already has the mind of an adult, and he doesn’t think much of the behavior of the actual adults around him. For this reason, he decides to not grow up, a feat accomplished by throwing himself down the stairs at age three. The result is that while time marches on, Oskar remains, in appearance, a perpetual three-year-old. Also at age three, Oskar receives the tin drum which becomes his constant companion—anyone who tries to take it away from him is treated to a demonstration of his ability to shatter grass with his screams.
The Tin Drum is constructed of a series of set pieces, which range from the hilarious (Oskar blackmails his nanny into reading him a pornographic novel about Raputin, then declares that he prefers Goethe) to the revolting (I defy you to eat eels after watching this film) to the historic and horrifying (Nazi rallies, Kristallnacht). Through it all, Oskar remains a perceptive but petulant child, completely self-centered and concerned only with what he wants at the moment. This is an understandable attitude for a three-year-old, but unfortunately it is shared by the adults around him as well. If ever a film embodied Hannah Arendt’s principle of “the banality of evil”, it’s The Tin Drum: the characters in this film want to think that they’re terribly important, but in fact they’re more ridiculous than anything.
The Tin Drum is a big film loaded with symbols and multiple layers of meaning, and is really something you need to experience for yourself, with as few preconceptions as possible. The key to the film is the performance of Bennent, who was 12 at the time of the filming but looked much younger due to a physiological disorder that interfered with his growth. He gives the kind of performance that should have been showered with awards, but somehow got overlooked in the voting.
Setting that oversight aside, The Tin Drum was both a commercial and a critical success in its day—it was the biggest moneymaker among German films of the ‘70s, and won both the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It shared the latter with Apocalypse Now, which tells you that 1979 was quite a year for film—how many recent winners of those two awards do you think will still seem as relevant 30 years from now?
The print used for this version of The Tin Drum has been restored, and the sound remastered, and the DVD looks and sounds great. Even more impressive, an extra 20 minutes of footage was integrated into the film, not because Schlöndorff was dissatisfied by the original release, but because, as he describes on an interview included with this release, the company storing the footage was going out of business and it was about to be destroyed.
The extras package for this release of The Tin Drum is disappointing because it omits key materials included with the 2004 Criterion release. Chief among these are the commentary track by Schlöndorff, and the short documentary film Banned in Oklahoma, which tells how The Tin Drum came to be banned in Oklahoma City 18 years after its original release (the reason: a judge considered some of its scenes to constitute child pornography). Granted, the incorporation of new footage might have required some editing and re-recording of the original commentary track, but surely that would have been possible, and excellent commentaries are one of the features I most look forward to with each Criterion release.
On the positive side, this release includes a new, 67-minute interview (in English) with Schlöndorff, which sort of makes up for the missing commentary track, and a 16-page illustrated booklet with an essay by film critic Geoffrey Macnab and brief comments on the film by Günter Grass. Carried over from the 2004 release are an audio recording of Grass reading excerpts from the novel (in German), paired with corresponding scenes in the film; excerpts from several television interviews (in French); and the film’s trailer.