The Tin Drum

Die Blechtrommel

The Tin Drum is a West German film that won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1980 and tied with Apocalypse Now for the Palme D’Or in 1979 at Cannes.   While the value of awards like these as an indicator of quality is always debatable, they always increase the profile of the film awarded them, occasionally giving a film longer life than it might have otherwise.  While I can’t say that’s exactly the case here-The Tin Drum is certainly  a distinctive film, both in its approach to its subject matter (the life of a strange little boy in Danzig in the years leading up to and during the Second World War), whether these serve to advance the story being told or the allegory that’s at work is debatable.  As an outsider, who knows something about the war but is hardly an expert, I’m not sure I quite understood the allegory at work for that reason, or because the film is based on a 1955 novel by Gunter Grass, and not everything from the page has made it to the screen.  Director Volker Schlondorff (The Handmaid’s Tale) puts some powerful and strange images on the screen, but to not much effect, and there always seems to be something missing from the story.

Oksar Matzerath is born in the interwar period in Danzig, which was then an independent city-state which sought to avoid conflict between its Polish, German, and Kashubian populations.  Oskar’s mother Agnes is a Kashubian, while he has two possible fathers-Alfred, a German war veteran and grocer, and Jan, Agnes’ cousin and a Pole who avoided war service.  While all three seem to get along fine with an arrangement where Alfred marries Agnes but Agnes sees Jan on the side (Jan and Alfred are friends, after all), Oskar rejects the adult world on his third birthday and ceases growing.  His third birthday gift, a drum, is all that little Oskar cares about, and he uses his piercing, glass shattering scream on any who attempt to take it away.  As Oskar grows older, Danzig grows more troubled and his family drifts apart.  Jan works in the Polish post office while Alfred becomes a dedicated Nazi party man, while Agnes’ despair grows until she kills herself (by eating too much fish?  I wasn’t terribly clear on what happened).  When war comes, Oskar gets Jan killed by dragging him into the post office to get his drum repaired, right before the fighting starts.  Later he seduces the baby sitter that his father gets to take care of him (these scenes were less disturbing to me than they could have been, since I was under the mistaken impression that David Bennett, who plays Oskar was an adult little person and not an eleven year old), but he loses out in the end to his father, who ends up marrying her after she gets pregnant (Oskar suspects the child is his).  He then goes on the road with a band of little people who entertain the Nazis, using his drumming and screeching talents and falling in love with fellow performer Roswitha.

Pod person or not? You decide.

The film in some ways reminded me of some of John Irving’s work, from the age difference between Oskar and some of his lovers to the strange voice to the child who simply stops growing.  Ultimately, though, I felt like I needed to either read the book to get more information, or possibly that I  needed a history course to get what was going on.  Some of the allegory is obvious-Oskar’s parents represent the 3 major ethnic groups of the city-but I was unclear as to what he was representing.  There are some wonderfully surreal and disturbing images, but they don’t seem to serve much of a story, and the lead character of Oskar starts out as somewhat enchanting but gradually grows more worthy of our hate.  Oskar is an obnoxious child, even when operating in the adult world, except possibly when he is with Roswitha and the other entertainers.  He causes the deaths of all three of his parents, and he simply is not a sympathetic character.  This isn’t necessarily a fault in a film, but the point escaped me.

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