German director Volker Schlöndorff’s film adaptation of the novel The Tin Drum (1979) is a haunting and epic work of antiwar cinema. The film is a razor sharp satire and haunting portrayal of both World War II and the dark and perverse side of human nature. The film excellently portrays the hysteria, fear and confusion that spread, like a tsunami, from its epicenter in Berlin across Europe and eventually the entire world.
Though significantly abridged, the film is a relatively faithful adaptation of Günter Grass’s famous novel of the same name. Though Schlöndorff borrowed heavily from both the plot and themes of the novel, his style is so acutely unique that it feels like an original work even if you’ve read the book. After watching the film and reading the novel, I cannot help but wonder how this film was ever made. The novel is so dense and the story so epic and broad in scope that it would appear to defy adaptation to the screen. Despite the novel’s daunting style and controversial subject matter, Schlöndorff ended up creating one of the most ambitious and successful novel-to-film adaptations ever brought to fruition. Obviously critics around the world agreed, as it won not only Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards but also the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival.
Schlöndorff was not the first choice to direct the film and in fact he had to be pressured into the project. This is quite shocking to learn because the film appears so stylistically and thematically surefooted. I believe the key to Schlöndorff’s success is the fact that he did not shy away from the aspects of the story that make the novel controversial or difficult; instead, he embraced them. The movie has several very disturbing scenes that dare the viewer not to look away. It is understandable for a director, when confronted with a difficult subject, to attempt to make it more palpable for the audience and the film’s producers. Although this is not necessarily a bad thing, you can lose important aspects of a story when you try to broaden its overall appeal. It is always a joy to find brave directors who accept controversial and difficult subject matter with open arms. Schlöndorff was so adamant about his version of the story that he fought for years to have the director’s cut released. He was finally successful. The full director approved version can be found on the Criterion Collection edition.
The film plot follows Oskar Matzerath (he is also the movie’s narrator) played by David Bennent. Oskar is acutely and abnormally aware of human nature with all of its flaws, perversions and self-destructive tendencies – apparently from birth (he can vividly remember his own birth). At the tender age of three, as a result of seeing the utter hypocrisy and ineptitude of the adult world, he decides that he will stop growing altogether, which he does successfully. Amongst his other personal peculiarities are his obsessive beating on a tin drum that he is never without and his ability to shatter glass with his high pitched scream. As Germany falls into bedlam around him and World War II erupts, he finds himself in different situations that take him far from home. Eventually he joins a group of artists charged with entertaining the troops. During the course of the movie he has three different lovers from whom he learns different aspects of life. This is just one of the many controversial facets of the film. Though the actor who played Oscar was actually older than he appeared (having a physical condition that slowed his growth), showing a young boy engaging in sexual acts is highly controversial, even today. For this very reason the film was banned in many countries around the world including Ireland and Canada for depicting child pornography. In fact the film doesn’t shrink from any subject be it religion, nationalism, depravity, insanity, mass mania, etc. Religion is certainly not spared. In one scene we see Oscar place his tin drum around the neck of a statue of baby Jesus and plays it manically as a priest tries desperately to stop him. There appears to be nothing sacred in this film. The film and novel seem to be asking why God allows evil and madness not only to exist but to proliferate.
In The Tin Drum, blame for World War II seems to be leveled not simply at the feet of Hitler or the Nazi party but the people of Europe as a whole. As Oscar so acutely points out in his narration, “There once was a gullible people who believed in Santa Clause. But Santa Clause was really the gas man!” The film seems to be asking how an entire nation could be swept up in a movement of hate. This is exemplified in a scene in which Oscar is hiding beneath the stage of a Nazi rally and by playing his drum changes the entire rally into a waltz. The participants are moved like marinates by whatever beat is played to them be it Oscars drum or the war drum of the Nazi party. The film seems to ask “who are the children, Oscar or the adults around him?” Oscar had to grow up far too soon and seems to the see world for what it really is, hopelessly lost. This does not mean that Oscar is an innocent, far from it. In many ways he is representative of the times. I would not go so far as to say he is evil but he has a malevolent nature and a callous disregard for the suffering he sees around him. He acts as a cold observer and chronicler of what takes place around him, all the while beating his tin drum to the horrors and when cornered emotionally, breaking glass with his inhuman shrieks. Why does he beat his drum? Why does he break glass with his voice? These are the subjects of much discussion and analysis. Obviously something is broken in Oscar that is irreparable. He, like his generation, is damaged, probably beyond repair. Which raises the question: can the notion of innocence ever truly return after the atrocities that occurred during World War II?
The Tin Drum is truly a masterwork. It looks unrelentingly upon the toughest of subjects. It is complex and I believe impossible to truly understand. It is meant to be experienced and wondered about. World War II is often depicted simply as good vs evil. The Tin Drum attempts to show more of a spectrum. There is obviously evil depicted in the film but there are also characters stuck in a moral/ethical purgatory, taken up by the madness of the time period and swept away with it. The film shows how the atrocities that took place during the war turned from a ripple into a tsunami that had far reaching effects even after the fighting stopped. The film paints a brutal and haunting portrait of war and human nature, through the surreal lens of a troubled and troubling child.