Eerie Storytellng at its Best
A disturbing, surreal trip into the psyche of a child surrounded by both fairly ordinary adult behavior and the horrors of Nazi Germany, this German film, based on Günter Grass's best-selling novel, was controversial when released in 1979, and today retains every bit of its ability to disturb. Last year, a judge in Oklahoma ordered the confiscation of videotape copies of the film---on the grounds of its potential as child pornography---from two people who had rented the movie from Blockbuster stores. (After viewing the movie, the same judge ruled, in a fit of sanity, that the film didn't meet the requirements of Oklahoma's child porno statute.)
All of this fuss was about Oskar, a child born in pre-war Nazi Germany. At the age of three, disillusioned by the adults he sees around him---primarily his mother and her two lovers, one of whom is Oskar's father, the other her husband---Oskar simply decides to stop growing. Played with unsettling calm by 12-year-old David Bennett (who had himself stopped growing at the age of six), Oskar is a chilling child who drowns out the insanity of the world by beating on a tin drum and screaming high and loud enough to shatter glass. By refusing to grow, and by shrieking and banging out his protests on his drum, he manipulates the adults around him.
Although Oskar doesn't grow physically, he does grow older. Just as a "normal" teenaged boy might, he experiments with sex with a young woman. (This is the scene that caused some Oklahomans to condemn The Tin Drum as kiddie porn.) As a young man in the body of a child, he entertains Nazi troops with his glass-shattering ability, even as he wonders at their stupidity and cruelty, his musings conveyed via haunting voice-over narration.
Some reviewers have insisted that Oskar's refusal to grow is his protest against the Nazis filling his world. But it's adults themselves---Nazis and everyone else---who provide the motivation for his amazing act of willpower.
Bennett's ashen face, the surreality of Oskar's drum-pounding and shrieking, and the societal rage of Nazi Germany make The Tin Drum difficult to watch---the film is calculated to challenge preconceptions of children, adults, Nazis, sex, reality, and the power of the mind. It mixes the fantastic with the banal and horrific, leaving the viewer to lurch around in search of a character or an emotion to latch on to for reassurance that humanity isn't entirely mad. But The Tin Drum is no place to look for comfort.
When a fisherman pulls a horse's head out of a lake, it seems almost a normal activity in this strange world. When eels begin to crawl out of the head---which apparently has been used as bait---the commonplace act of fishing is turned into a nightmare, punctuated by Oskar's mother's vomiting and his furious beating on his tin drum. It's through this sort of eerie storytelling that we find our connection to Oskar and the bare comforts the film offers. In his place, who wouldn't be horrified?
Luckily, this DVD's physical aspects cause no existential nausea. The film transfer is perfectly adequate, if hardly of demo quality. Though the DVD was made from the original film negative, there are small flecks here and there in the movie, though none are large enough to distract. The English subtitles are in yellow and easy to read---always a blessing. The soundtrack is also quite adequate, though many viewers might wish Oskar's drumming and screaming were muted.
A muting of the insanity might have made The Tin Drum easier to watch, but it would have been exactly the opposite of the message Grass and director Volker Schlöndorff meant to send.