A SAVAGE, SWEEPING EPIC OF SOCIETY IN CHAOS.
Günter Grass’s novel ”The Tin Drum” was published in 1959 and immediately faced resistance. Some critics called it ”immoral”, as if it had an obligation to be moral. Over the years, this first part of the author’s Danzig trilogy was established as a classic of German postwar literature. It’s been reported that Grass initially resisted attempts to have the novel filmed, but Volker Schlöndorff was someone he could accept. Much like ”The Tin Drum” became an example of excellence in the author’s career, the movie adaptation stands as a similar achievement in the director’s oeuvre.
Hiding underneath a woman’s skirts
The story begins in 1899, as a man is being pursued by the police in the Kashubian area of Poland. He hides underneath the skirts of a woman he meets. That’s the beginning of a romance, resulting in the birth of Agnes (Angela Winkler). She has two lovers: her cousin Jan (Daniel Olbrychski) who works for the Polish Post Office in the Free City of Danzig, and Alfred Matzerath (Mario Adorf), a chef who eventually is quick to join the Nazi Party. Alfred is the man Agnes marries and she gives birth to Oskar.
On his third birthday, Oskar is given a tin drum, which becomes his favorite toy. That’s also the day he decides to stop growing, after watching his drunken parents and their friends. He remains a short fellow, quick to use his drum, and he also learns that he can use his voice to shatter glass. Over the years, he watches German adults bring everybody’s lives closer to ruin.
Covering two thirds of the novel
This adaptation covers two thirds of Grass’s novel and ends with the end of World War II. Oskar is the main character and it’s easy to view him as a symbol of Germany, stubbornly refusing to grow as the nation moves closer to authoritarianism. As Germany is finally defeated in 1945, Oskar decides to grow again; the film ends with the hope of a brighter future. Throughout the story, Oskar is both Grass’s typically unreliable narrator and our observer.
Grass grew up in Danzig at a very special time in the city’s history, when it existed as a sort of independent city-state from 1920 to 1939. Anti-Semitism was ripe and is frequently depicted in the novel and the film, mainly in the shape of Sigismund Markus (Charles Aznavour), a toy seller who eventually falls victim to the Nazis, and Jan, the cousin whom Oskar considers his real father, true or not. Grass and Schlöndorff also dramatize an actual event in the city’s history, the defense of the Polish Post Office, as German paramilitaries in Danzig moved quickly to seize control after Germany’s attack on Poland, September 1st, 1939. There’s plenty of dramatic and political events in this film, but it should also appeal to a wider audience, with its magic realism and many absurd ingredients. There’s a whole subplot about Agnes’s relationship with fish… and Oskar also meets performing dwarves, especially Bebra (Fritz Hakl), who also decided to stop growing at the age of 10. They meet again during the war, when Oskar has a fling with Roswitha, another dwarf, and joins their act.
A romance between Oskar and a 16-year-old also caused quite a stir in several countries where the filmmakers were accused of child pornography (Bennent was 12; Katharina Thalbach 24), but (to me anyway) that subplot stands out more now as an symbol of Oskar’s lack of maturity, part of a complex portrait of Germany.
It’s a rich, colorful, to some extent vulgar film, with a fine music score by Maurice Jarre and an unforgettable performance by young Bennent in the lead, his eyes giving us looks of horror and defiance.
The Tin Drum 1979-West Germany. 142 min. Color. Produced by Hans Prescher, Franz Seitz. Directed by Volker Schlöndorff. Screenplay: Jean-Claude Carrière, Volker Schlöndorff, Franz Seitz. Novel: Günter Grass. Cinematography: Igor Luther. Music: Maurice Jarre. Cast: David Bennent (Oskar Matzerath), Mario Adorf (Alfred Matzerath), Angela Winkler (Agnes Matzerath), Daniel Olbrychski, Katharina Thalbach, Heinz Bennent… Charles Aznavour.
Trivia: Original title: Die Blechtrommel. Alternative version runs 163 min.
Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film. Cannes: Palme d’Or.
Last word: “It’s a look at Germany, its barbaric side. It’s a movie that’s rather savage, like the novel I think, meaning that it also introduces the deep irrationalism of German history of his story. And I think that – and I’m not bragging – that we were able to capture that multitude of baroque and irrational episodes, and strange characters in the film with the great comedian that is our main actor who is as good as the greatest comedians of the silent films, such as the Kid or Harry Langdon.” (Schlöndorff, Europe of Cultures)