Thursday, December 16, 2010

Review: The Tin Drum (1979)

       According to Volker Schöndorff, when he and screenwriter Jean Claude Carrière (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) first brought their screenplay of The Tin Drum to Günter Grass, the author praised it, but told them it was "too Cartesian, too rational." Too him, the story had to be disrupted by irrational elements, lest people started to think that History actually developed in a rational way. Well, it seems that Grass got his wish, as there is plenty that is irrational and even whimsical in The Tin Drum just as there's plenty that's shocking and discomfiting.
     Then again, what else can you expect from a WWII movie about a child/dwarf who obsessively pounds on a toy drum and has the power to break glass with his high pitched screams. After getting disgusted with the adult world at the age of three the precocious Oskar (David Bennent) throws himself down the cellar stairs in order to stop himself from growing. What follows is a story that's part coming of age, part magical realism, and part commentary on German society and Nazism. Some of the coming of age bit helped to get the movie banned in Oklahoma, where the police actually intimidated video stores into giving away people's addresses so they could enter their homes and confiscate their tapes! It shows Oskar--a 16 year old who looks like and behaves he's 5 (the actor was an 11 year old with a growth problem)-- trying to perform oral sex on a teenage girl (the actress was 24). There's quite a bit of sensuality in the movie; Oskar's mother, Maria (Katarina Thalbach) is involved in a love triangle with her husband, Alfred, and her cousin, Jan Bronski. And later Oskar falls in love with a fellow dwarf, Roswitha, and the two go around with a troop of dwarves performing for German officers.
      It's a difficult movie to figure out. This is partly because there's so much happening with the characters that the actual war can seem like an afterthought until the climax, and partly because neither Grass nor Schlöndorff have any interest in platitudes. Oskar seems to be a bit of an ambiguous character; he longs for innocence, returning again and again to buy his tin drums from the Jewish toy store owner, but he also succumbs to temptation when he starts performing and helping out the war effort. At times he wants to emulate the military precision of other marching drummers, but there is one scene where he interrupts a Nazi rally with his own complex rythms and turns the whole thing from a solemn autocratic affair into joyous chaos. And then there's Alfred, who replaces the portrait of Beethoven over the piano with one of Hitler only to tear that down in anguish and anger at having been misled when he knows the end is near. If The Tin Drum is different from any war movie I've seen, it's because it's the only one I've seen told from the perspective of German, non-Jewish, citizens. Let's not forget that Grass was actually in the Waffen-SS when he was 17. It's fitting that his version of the war would involve dwarves, toys, eels fished out of a rotting horse's head, shootings, and soliloquies about potatoes from Nazi youth leaders ("look, if you please, at this extraordinary potato...this swelling, luxuriant flesh, forever conceiving new shapes...and yet so chaste. I love a potato, because it speaks to me.") In short, it's not something that it's possible to fully understand.


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