Reviews

'The Tin Drum' Is a Big Film, Loaded with Symbols and Multiple Layers of Meaning

Volker Schlöndorff's classic adaptation of Günter Grass's novel, restored and with 20 minutes of additional footage.


The Tin Drum

Director: Volker Schlöndorff
Cast: David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler, Daniel Olbrychski
Distributor: Criterion
Studio: United Artists
Release date: 2013-01

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.

8

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image