Tin Drum, The (1979)

Review #1,192

Director:  Volker Schlondorff
Cast:  David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler
Plot:  Oskar Matzerath, son of a local dealer, is a most unusual boy. Equipped with full intellect right from his birth he decides at his third birthday not to grow up as he sees the crazy world around him at the eve of World War II. 

Genre:  Drama / War
Awards:  Won Palme d'Or (Cannes).
Runtime:  162min (Director's Cut)
Rating:  R21 for sexual scenes involving a young boy, nudity and violence.
International Sales:  Tamasa Distribution

“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 was famous for tying with Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now for the Cannes Palme d'Or in 1979.  It was however infamous for its controversy for having scenes of ‘child pornography’, leading to censorship in many countries, including an outright ban in Canada.  All that aside, the film is really and very simply overrated, opting for a sweeping epic tale that does pay off in terms of its scope and historicity, but fails (though not miserably) to nail the right tone and focus for the film. 

Directed by Volker Schlondorff, The Tin Drum is his badge of honour, the film that defined him as a filmmaker, and some critics thought to be his masterpiece.  One of the least known of German New Wave filmmakers that included the likes of Werner Herzog, R.W. Fassbinder and Wim Wenders, Schlondorff has made films and television movies over five decades that are still not widely available.  For better or worse, The Tin Drum continues to be his representative work, and not surprisingly given the full Criterion treatment.

It is adapted from Gunter Grass' novel of the same name, with the author contributing to some of the film's dialogue.  Charting the journey of a young boy whose physical growth is stunted, the film sees the boy maturing (in his mind) while his body remains that of a three-year old.  He finds himself in a world of adults whose capacity for oppression and authority depresses him completely.  He witnesses the rise of Nazism on German soil and its inevitable fall, the suffering of the condemned, as well as the joys of being part of a circus act involving dwarves. 

Schlondorff brings all the elements together to create a fable-like take on history, as seen through the eyes of a young boy.  It is a bizarre work with a mix of powerful if surreal visuals that are imbued with overbearing symbolism.  Together with the motif of the boy who (as the title suggests) frequently hits on his beloved tin drum and attempting high-pitch screams that would shatter glass, the film turns out to be rather hard to reconcile in literal terms.

Its function as an allegory of one child's fight against authoritarianism is also problematized because Schlondorff's film is unsure of its thematic underpinnings – does it seek to portray, albeit surrealistically, a child's innocence shattered by war (and sexuality), and hence earning our sympathy?  Or does it want us to be agitated by a child's (or brat really) agitation towards the idea of absolute power (and of absolute sexual control)? 

The boy - his name is Oskar - played in an astounding performance by David Bennent is quite rightly the film's anchor point despite the changing scenery and circumstance.  The cinematography and art direction is top-tier, but at the end of the day, The Tin Drum, if it were to look at itself in the mirror, probably wouldn't know what it is trying to say or evoke. 

Verdict:  A fable-like take on the rise and fall of Nazism on German soil, Schlondorff’s work is a bizarre mix of powerful if surreal visuals with a flawed allegory on one child’s fight against authoritarianism.  


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