Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Tin Drum is a challenging and disturbing adaptation of a novel that at first glance
wouldn't appear to lend itself to a film adaptation. The tale of a self-willed freak's odd adventures
through the years that deformed Germany is completely original and free of judgmental moralizing
and after-the-fact wisdom.
It could almost be called Magical Realism, if it weren't for the nagging suspicion that something
terrible is about to happen at any moment. The Nazi years are treated as a malignant fairy tale
experienced through the eyes of child who sees things as they are, without the filters of
Volker Schlöndorff is perhaps the most profound of the young German directors who rose in
the 1970s, and his brilliant movie is artistically fascinating.
Young Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) is so traumatized by adult madness that he
wills himself to stop growing at the age of 3. He's inseparable from his toy drum, and when he
screams his voice shatters glass. Oskar's mother (Angela Winkler) and his two fathers (?)
Alfred Matzerath (Mario Adorf) and Jan Bronski (Daniel Olbrychski of
Les uns et les autres) manage through
the years of Nazidom and the bizarre events of the war. Befriending a troupe of performing midgets,
Oskar travels to the Western front to entertain the German troops.
Volker Schlöndorff's biggest achievement in The Tin Drum is to express the story's
fantastic elements of with basically simple effects. A voice shattering objects of glass is easy
enough, but we also see a vision of life inside a womb and bear witness to a number of other
bizarre happenings. Oskar Matzerath's strange life is in all aspects slightly distorted, with the
perversity of the situation expressed in disturbing sexuality.
Oskar narrates the film as if he were the spirit of his country, a child of stunted growth who
lives in terror and faces life with a kind of uncommunicative apprehension. He's very aware that
his mother sleeps with two men and that the man whose name he bears may not be his real father.
Everyone accepts this situation but his mother Agnes still slips away for clandestine meetings
with Jan Bronski. Oskar hides under his grandmother's skirts in the same way his grandfather
did, unavoidably implying a sexual relationship, if only in a conceptual sense.
The marching Nazis start out being pelted and jeered. By the time of the war Danzig is being
considered a fundamentally German town as Poles and Jews are persecuted. The Jews are hounded out
by both Poles and Germans, as seen in the casual harassment of sensitive toyseller Sigismund
Markus (Charles Aznavour, in a touching performance). The local communist
(Wings of Desire's Otto Sander) prides
himself on being a convert to Naziism, as Hitler must especially love a prodigal son. Oskar's father
Alfred becomes a party member as a matter of pride, something he can't impart to his drum-rattling,
glass-shattering son. Key scenes show Oskar confusing a parade and totally ruining a big Nazi rally
via the interference of his little drum. Led by his strange cadence, the regimented files of
men and women break ranks to waltz instead of "Seig Heil."
The unsettling part of The Tin Drum is more a matter of tone than any graphic presentation.
Oskar's mother becomes
inbalanced by sex or the insanity of life and starts eating fish - whole fish, head first - without
any camera tricks. It's hard not to wince at. Little Oskar is supposed to have a 3 year-old's body
but he's chronologically a teenager when he has a quasi-affair with Maria, his very young-looking
stepmother. This is the content that got the film in trouble with some troublesome bluenoses in Oklahoma. It
is disturbing, not because anything too explicit happens but simply because an obvious child is
Oskar's adventures become more satirical when he joins the little entertainment troupe wearing a
tiny uniform and performing for the German soldiers. There he meets his closest love, an Italian
midget. He returns to a blasted Danzig, to once again become a refugee.
How this strange stack of bizarre elements congeals into a lucid portrait of an era is the mark of
the genius of Günter Grass. Like Apocalypse Now, The Tin Drum is a poetic
interpretation of history
and not an accurate representation, but it definitely captures an essence. Schlöndorff's
presentation is splendid and his direction achieves a period believability without resorting to
huge sets or (with one or two exceptions) large crowds of extras. The art direction and designs evoke
a dark, rich and potentially happy Danzig where the evil seems to come from some innate sin borne
by the characters themselves.
The casting is superb. Little David Bennent has a pained expression in his eyes that reminds of
Oskar Werner or Anthony Hopkins. He seems older than his years, making his precocious tot character
all the more weird. Mario Adorf and Daniel Olbrychski are very good and Angela Winkler is excellent
as the emotionally misaligned mother. Katharina Thalbach is a Lolita-ish mystery as the sexually
provocative stepmother ... leading Oskar into bizarre adventures that adhere to no known rules of
The Tin Drum moves briskly and seems to end too soon, which is a high compliment for
a pedigreed art film. Volker Schlöndorff does Germany right, advancing the national cinema
while confronting its despairing past.
Criterion's DVD of The Tin Drum uses choice extras to give an informed picture of how the
film was shot and how it came to be notorious in a child pornography lawsuit in Oklahoma. As
with the earlier Kino Release
Circle of Deceit, we get plenty
of director input in a commentary and a docu called Volker Schlöndorff Remembers. He
also narrates a selection of interesting deleted scenes, as well as appearing in French interviews
during the Cannes film festival before and after he won the Palme D'Or. The docu explains how the
child-sex scenes were done. Technically nothing sexual occurred, but filming an eleven year-old
boy with a virtually nude woman is still rather questionable.
There's a 1987 recording of novelist Grass reading an excerpt from his book, and a reprint
translation of the screenplay's unfilmed ending.
Very interesting is Gary D. Rhodes' docu about the Oklahoma lawsuit. This became a major event
covered in journals like Video Watchdog; responding to the "tips" of an activist
antipornography group, police officers illegally demanded the rental logs from Blockbuster stores
and illegally seized copies of the film through warrantless searches. As a result, The Tin Drum
became an unlikely best-seller in Oklahoma. Kino's film expert Jessica Rosner appears in some
amusing clips - Kino distributed the film on VHS at the time of the lawsuit.
There's also a trailer and an especially welcome feature, Maurice Jarre's score isolated on its own
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Tin Drum rates:
Supplements: commentary, 2 docus, isolated score, deleted scenes, interviews, galleries,
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 16, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson