Hitler may have been a genocidal maniac, but he was also a ridiculous little man. So a boy with a tendency for tantrums is probably a very appropriate hero for a film that traces the ravages of Nazism on German history.
The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) is an adaptation of Gunter Grass’s highly acclaimed 1959 novel that charted the tribulations of the first half of twentieth century Germany. It is directed by Volker Schlöndorff, who, alongside Werner Herzog, Rainier Maria Fassbinder and Wim Wenders, were key members of the New German Cinema movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Critics loved the film and in 1979 it won both the Palme d’Or at Cannes and also the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
Set in Danzig, or Gdansk as it is now known, The Tin Drum follows a young boy and his family from the mid 1920s until the end of World War II. Danzig at the time had sizeable populations of Germans, Poles and Kashub, (another ethnic group) and was a semi-independent ‘free city’. The Matzerath family is a similar melting pot: Agnes Koljaiczek (Angela Winkler) is Kasubian and her husband Alfred (Mario Adorf) is a German, and it turns out the real father of the boy is most likely Jan Bronski (Daniel Olbrychski), a Pole. Likewise, Gunter Grass’s father was German while his mother was Polish-Kashubian.
Grass’s book is one of those works of literature that are often called ‘unfilmable’. It is told through the eyes of a boy who is so frustrated with the adult world that, at the age of three, decides he will stop growing. The book contains surreal free association, philosophical digressions and other literary devices that don’t translate very well onto the screen. Schlöndorff seems to have vaulted over these apparent limitations by treating them as a licence to exercise creativity.
The director does have the advantage that little Oskar Matzerath (played by 11-year-old David Bennent) is a very curious hero indeed. Not only has he stopped growing, but Oskar has an obsessive attachment to his toy tin drum and has a high pitched scream that can break glass. He likes to use both to mischievous effect. Oskar maintains his child’s eye view of the adult world as he ages; he is both a detached observer and a naughty prankster.
One particularly striking scene occurs when Oskar’s mother takes him to the doctor after he stops growing. The doctor considers the boy’s case in a surgery surrounded by cupboards carrying glass specimen jars each containing a creature stored in pickling solution. He becomes upset and starts shrieking, the jars shatter and deposit their gruesome contents, including a human foetus, all over the floor.
As well as containing unsettling moments such as these, The Tin Drum has plenty of funny and bawdy episodes. One of these is the brief liaison between his grandmother with a wanted man in the middle of a potato field – the diminutive fellow hides under her voluminous skirts – and his mother is born nine months later. Gradually, these family stories become more entwined with Nazism. The picture of Beethoven above the piano is replaced with one of Hitler.
Symbolism and allegory like this are used frequently. Little Oskar attends a Nazi rally where his drumming gets the goose stepping ranks dancing to the Blue Danube. Although he is not taken in by the follies of Nazism, Oskar himself is can be seen to represent the dark political realities of inter-war Europe. His disruptive illogic holds a mirror to Hitler’s irrational passions. The way his family adapt to the little tyrant in their house, is similar to how they approach Hitler.
Too much allegory in our literal age can weigh a film down, and working out what it all means can be a bit confusing. Schlöndorff doesn’t let it become tedious however, his characters are too earthy and his beady eye too scabrous for that. If the film is not entirely likeable, it is because neither Oskar nor any of the other characters are either. Not surprising given the savagery of the time.
Find The Tin Drum Dual Format Edition at Amazon.co.uk, special features include:
– High Definition and Standard Definition presentation of the original theatrical version [1080p]
– High Definition presentation of the Director’s Cut [Blu-ray only 1080p]
– New restoration of both the theatrical version and the brand new Director’s Cut approved by director Volker Schlöndorff
– 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
– Audio commentary with director/co-screenwriter Volker Schlöndorff
– Interview with Volker Schlöndorff on the new cut of The Tin Drum (2011) [Blu-ray only]
– Making The Tin Drum, Volker Schlöndorff remembers making the film and his collaborators (2001) [DVD only]
– Original Trailer [DVD only]
– Comprehensive booklet featuring brand new writing on the film by George Lellis and Hans-Bernhard Moeller, authors of Volker Schlondorff’s Cinema: Adaptation, Politics and the Movie-appropriate, as well as extracts from Volker Schlöndorff’s diary, writing by Jean Claude Carrière and Günter Grass, illustrated with archival stills.
– Artwork presentation packaging featuring newly commissioned artwork and three original posters