dir: Volker Schlöndorff
The Tin Drum has to be one of the weirdest conventional-seeming flicks about World War II that I’ve ever seen. You start off thinking it’s a depiction of life under the rise and subsequent defeat of the Nazis, but, really, it’s a catalogue of bizarreness from the mind of acclaimed author Günther Grass.
He’s the same acclaimed author who it was recently revealed had been a member of the SS-Waffen. In his youth, apparently. I don’t think they mean a few weeks ago. At least I hope not.
Regardless, that being the case, I guess the guy was uniquely qualified to write a story set during the heyday of the Reich. But what a strange story…
Birth scenes in flicks are often difficult to handle, but this flick has to have one of the oddest I’ve ever had the displeasure to see. The child who plays the main character for the entirety of the film, who was 11 at the time, plays a newborn infant as well. With vernix and blood plastering his hair down as he is pulled through the womb, he reveals that the reason he decides not to go back in is because his mother promises to buy him a tin drum when he is three.
Such a beginning dictates that this isn’t going to be your regular coming of age story. Clearly, there’s elements of what is now called magical realism in the story, which means a lot of stuff happens which don’t make logical sense. But they occur to tell the strange story of Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent), and to give us some strong, ugly metaphors for what a strange place Europe was from the 1920s onwards.
At age three, Oskar, exceedingly pleased with the tin drum he receives on his birthday, decides that he wants to age and grow no longer. He flings himself down some steps and causes himself an injury that leaves him looking like a child for the rest of his life.
He does this because he views the world of adults with disgust and contempt, if not malice, and this is but the first of many evil things he will do over the course of his life.
We’re used to evil children in cinema. At least that’s what I thought the purpose of all those Look Who’s Talking and Home Alone flicks was. But Oskar is a cut above the rest, and very annoying to boot.
He lugs around the drum and often beats it to express whatever he feels that words can’t entirely encompass. He will tolerate no-one trying to take the drum off him, and discovers early on that he can emit an ear-piercing and glass-shattering scream upon demand in defence of the drum. He does what he wants when he wants, with adults around him being powerless to stop him.
He sees everything the adults around him try to hide. His mother (Angela Winkler) carries on an affair with her cousin Jan (Daniel Olbrychski), a passionate affair with the guy who is probably Oskar’s father, almost in plain view of her husband Alfred (Mario Adorf). Alfred is no villain, though he is thrilled to bits by the growing might of the Nazis.
So this is what happens when a kid has two fathers. Jan on the other hand, is Polish, which wouldn’t seem to be an issue, except for the fact that the family lives in Danzig. Now, there’s probably no point going into the various intricacies of geography and nation-states arising from the days of the Prussian empire or the downfall of the Weimer Republic. Suffice to say that the places we now call Germany (or Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles, if you like), Poland and France weren’t always known as such and weren’t under singular banners for that long. Suffice further to say that there used to be places called Zealand, Sudetanland and Kashubia, which obviously are no longer extant.
Danzig is now known as Gdansk, and is part of Poland these days, or at least until Kazakhstan invades, I guess. But back then it was a critical part of the Nazi plan for world domination. First it was callisthenics, then the lederhosen, then the funny looking sausages, then invade Danzig, and the world would be their sauerkraut-flavoured oyster.
We hear the broadcasts on the radio as the German propaganda machine revs up, speaking endlessly of the constant provocations Poland keeps making to the noble, stoic German nation, and how the constantly put-upon Fuhrer is reaching the end of his saint-like patience.
Compare it to the reasons for going to war contemporarily, and you have to wonder whether political PR is really as sophisticated as people think these days.
Of course war is coming, but none of this means anything to Oskar. He’s one of those protagonists who live through catastrophic times, but who are so self-focussed on their own dramas that the global dramas unfolding around them are just background noise.
Oskar wants things. He needs a constant stream of new drums to replace the old ones, or he needs them to be repaired. He wants to refer to himself in the third person. He fails to conceal an almost murderous love for his mother that constantly gets reiterated in Oedipal event after Oedipal event. It can be no coincidence when Oskar is about to be treated by a doctor, and he emits his trademark scream, shattering containers of formaldehyde containing various dead things including a foetus.
He also (indirectly) causes the deaths of so many people, including his fathers and father figures that Oedipus himself is rolling in his two thousand plus year old grave. And let’s not even get into the possibility that he becomes the father of his own step-brother.
There is a tremendous degree of frankness when it comes to the depictions of sexuality, bodily fluids and sex itself, which might be a tad confronting for some viewers. I’d put it on a par with the Bertolucci film 1900 which I saw recently, which also contains scenes of a sexual nature and child nudity that not a single director these days anywhere who doesn’t want (and deserve) to be castrated would dare to film.
And let’s not forget the scenes of forced ingestion of ‘soup’ that kids have peed in, or the numerous times where people swap spit. The fixation on bodily fluids is… a bit much, but I guess it’s true to the book, so who am I to complain?
For my money the most disturbing scene involves the pulling of a horse’s head out of the water, containing as it does dozens of loathsome eels. I can barely describe how sickening the scene is, but, then again, it’s supposed to be. Its impact is readily depicted by Oskar’s mother’s reaction, which then presages her eventual fate as well.
Throughout all this Oskar does not age physically, but his selfishness matures. By the time he is in his late teens he still has the body of a child but the desires of a man. It’s a dangerous combination even in reverse – just ask Michael Jackson.
For all his sociopathy (and for all the constant string of metaphors he embodies), he is still capable of love. Whilst touring with some other midgets and dwarves, trying to entertain the Wehrmacht lads on the front lines in the strangest morale-boosting spectacle I’ve ever seen, he finds love with a fellow dwarf. So maybe he’s not a complete bastard.
Still, it’s hard to forget the scene where he tries to stab the pregnant belly of his step-mother. Or the murderous rage in his eyes at many other times. This is a guy who literally moves to the beat of his own drum.
Sure, he’s monstrous, but he is living in monstrous times. He is not a product of them, but a comment on them. As for his glass-breaking ability, it’s hard to forget the obvious connection it has with the whole Kristallnacht image of broken glass everywhere and what it meant for the Jews and for the world.
There is a remarkable scene as well at a Nazi rally where Oskar manages to subvert the purpose of it by gently guiding an orchestra into playing a completely different tune. The band is initially playing some fascist masterpiece whilst accompanied by the screeching of a Nazi orator, but, without even realising it, is guided into playing the Danube waltz by Oskar’s drumming. All the people previously brainwashed into giving the Nazi salute and cheering the threatened extermination of Jews and Eskimos, start dancing instead.
People are easily led, I know, but The Tin Drum overall makes for a compelling, unusual and unique portrait of life during the Reich, with a strange story about a strange boy thrown in for good measure. It’s certainly not going to be for everyone, and I can see a lot of people being flat-out disgusted by it, but I found it pretty funny and fascinating throughout.
Not least of which because I was amazed at what filmmakers could get away with in the 70s.
7 times just thinking about those eels churns the intestines of 10
“My dear Oskar, trust an experienced colleague. Our kind must never sit in the audience. Out kind must perform and run the show, or the others will run us. The others are coming. They will occupy the fairgrounds, they will stage torchlight parades, build rostrums, fill the rostrums, and from those rostrums preach our destruction.” – The Tin Drum.