Criterion // 1979 // 142 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Neil Dorsett (Retired) // February 15th, 2005
"Uh, hi? Blockbuster Video, I'm the store manager, and I'm calling you about the movie you currently have checked out, Tin Drum? Um, I have the Oklahoma City Police Department here, and they are seizing my copies, so...since you have our copy checked out, I need you to return that at your...as soon as possible. Since they're here. Waiting on that." -- Blockbuster Video manager, Oklahoma City 1998
Oskar: To tell the truth, I prefer to remain a member of the audience,
and let my little art flower in secret.
Bebra: My dear Oskar, trust an experienced colleague. Our kind must never sit in the audience. Our kind must perform and run the show, or it's the others that will run us. And the others are coming. They will take over the fairgrounds. They will stage torchlight parades. They will build platforms and fill them, and from those platforms preach our destruction.
The Tin Drum begins as most movies do: with a mythical story of the
conception of the protagonist's mother. Turn-of-the-century Kashubian potato
farmer Anja Bronski is enjoying some of her harvest alone in the fields when a
desperate man, pursued by the Kaiser's police, flings himself at her feet and
begs her to hide him beneath her skirts. She does so, successfully, despite the
fact that underneath those skirts the man -- a political arsonist named Koljacek
-- is availing himself of what might be his own last pleasure in life while he's
down there. The soldiers gone, Anja and Koljacek (zipping himself up) cart off
the potatoes and begin to make a life together; although it won't last, and Anja
winds up raising their daughter, Agnes Koljacek, almost alone. Although Agnes is
not entirely alone in childhood: she spends much of her youth in the company of
her cousin Jan Bronski, and the two fall deeply in love with one another. A
marriage between cousins, however, is not to be, and Agnes eventually takes up
with hospital soupçon Alfred Matzerath, whom Agnes describes as being
"able to turn feelings into soup." This establishes an odd three-way
relationship, with Agnes (Kashubian) involved with both a Pole and a German in
the early to mid 1920s, with the Pole and German working in an unsteady sort of
truce to allow all the relations to continue as best they may. And soon there is
another Bronski, or Matzerath on the way. But this is Poland in the '20s; the
baby is not the only thing that's coming soon.
And so we meet little Oskar Matzerath, "born somewhere between wonder and disillusion," a small blond blue-eyed embodiment of the 20th century. Oskar is deeply resentful of having been torn from the womb, and only his mother's promise of a tin drum at the age of three prevents him from collapsing at birth. At the age of three he is indeed gifted with the drum, but at his party Oskar begins to become aware that something lurid is happening between his mother and Uncle Jan. Disgusted with this evidence of adult life, Oskar makes his fateful decision: He will stop his growth at the age of three and remain "a gnome, forever!" To give credence to this decision, he screams and throws himself down the stairs to the cellar. After this, Oskar never grows again, and he shall not be separated from his tin drum. Any attempt to forcibly take the drum from Oskar produces an incredible shriek from the base of his lungs -- a shriek which can shatter glass, repeatedly and reliably. Once this is established -- to the point that doctors write articles about Oskar -- his education must be forgotten (because he is uncontrollable) and replaced by this strange power which, combined with his drum, is both art and weapon.
The film follows Oskar through his strange life, through the streets of Danzig. At the circus, aged twelve, Oskar encounters Bebra, a performer of fifty-five who stopped his own growth at the age of ten. Introducing himself, Oskar impresses Bebra with his abilities and Bebra asks Oskar to take to the stage alongside himself and the other little people with whom Bebra performs. Oskar declines, but takes the matter much to heart as he returns to his home with the Matzeraths. Trouble blooms in many forms, not the least of which is the small matter of the outbreak of World War II. And Oskar clings to his drum, expressing his own stunted will to power even as the massively destructive Nazi machine begins to sweep the land.
I've only scratched the surface of The Tin Drum in the summary above. It was difficult to know where to stop; this movie is possessed of so many turning points that it's hard to know what constitutes a spoiler. Needless to say, it's quite a movie. Director Volker Schlöndorff, who specializes in adaptation, brings to life the famously banned novel by Gunter Grass. Schlöndorff has a number of esteemed projects to his credit, including The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum and his criminally underseen version of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, but this is surely his great triumph and is easily his best-known movie. It is a tale steeped in symbolic imagery and philosophy; principally German and French existentialism, with no small nod to the Russian literary tradition as well. Like any such epic, The Tin Drum is not only the tale of its protagonist but of his entire neighborhood; as Danzig undergoes the birth traumas of World War II -- including Kristallnacht and the War's opening battle -- we are witness to births and deaths, as life and time change all who pass through them. All but Oskar.
There is a scene at the very heart of The Tin Drum; so much so that it is presented on this DVD twice, once in the movie and once in a reading by Gunther Grass. Oskar, perhaps six, approaches a pro-Nazi speaking engagement that his father Alfred has planned to attend. After treading in some feces left behind perhaps by a child of the like who's poised and laying some cable nearby, Oskar slips beneath a low platform of the bleachers. A parade with accompanying march-music band is presenting itself to the assembled spectators, all formed in neat rows and sorted by uniform. As the troupe files past, Oskar begins to play a counterbeat on his tin drum, loudly. Within a few bars, he has infected one of the band's drummers with his beat, and in turn the rest of the orchestra picks up this beat. Unable to fix any longer on the melody, bits of the orchestra begin stabbing in the dark, picking up pieces of song as they go, before a dominant melody emerges: "The Beautiful Blue Danube." The crowd dissolves into a waltzing maelstrom of chaos with the speaker left alone at attention as rain breaks over the crowd, sending them all scurrying away. In one scene we see the triumph of the artist and the individual, the tendency to entropy in spite of the mousetraps of men, or whatever, the will to power and/or vandalism, the subversion of the father figure, and the implication that attending the rally is like stepping in poop; and on top of all that it's just plain screwing with the brownshirts. Can you dig it. And in terms of poetic content, this whole movie is like that. Cumulatively, too.
But do not let all this talk of symbol and metaphor lead you to think this movie is nothing more than an arty (that means "artsy-fartsy," only without the compulsive scatological contempt) exploration of theme; nothing could be further from the truth. All of this theme and symbol is present, but The Tin Drum never stops delivering a full-strength engrossing and lively narrative, not to mention several extraordinary performances. Chief among those is that of David Bennent; himself a "gnome" at the time (he grew later), he was twelve and thirteen when the movie was produced but portrays Oskar from the ages of zero (Bennent portrays even the fetal Oskar) to twenty and never strikes a wrong note with the strange character. Oskar remains a child in significant mental as well as the physical ways while showing other facets of adulthood as he goes along; it is a complex and rewarding performance. In addition, his talents as a narrator are outstanding; he shows the confidence of a ten-year radio veteran when delivering the voice-over (I say this as a non-speaker of German; to a native ear this may not be the case). Also excellent are the top-billed Mario Adorf and Angela Winkler, as well as the young Katherina Kailbach in a difficult temptress role, with all performers in the large ensemble turning in great work.
Not having read Grass's novel myself, I must rely on secondhand information to report that aficionados of the novel should be prepared to find much structural change from the weighty tome. Gone, for instance, is a subplot in the book's present day where Oskar is accused of murder. Take that as you will; I can report, however, that the film has Grass's endorsement. He refers to Schlöndorff as an "interlocutor" and praises the collaboration heavily in the disc's liner notes.
The Tin Drum is presented by Criterion in an anamorphically enhanced transfer at 1.66:1 that very much lives up to the ideals of the Collection. The Technicolor-sourced transfer is extraordinary, reproducing the orange and brown tones used by cinematographer Igor Luther with great earthy flavor. The picture, which like most recent releases from Criterion comes straight from 35mm to the computer without an intermediary master tape, is always sharp and clear with only moving figures at long range showing any trace of edge enhancement (and that's minimal). Any damage to the print has been almost totally eradicated in the digital realm. Motion compression is barely noticeable and flags have been set to provide excellent progressive display on high-end systems. The transfer comes equipped with authentic 5.1 and monaural mixes -- significantly different from each other to require independent sets of subtitles (although the dialogue changes are subtle). Both are quite robust with the 5.1 track having the expected edge, with the score and all manner of drumming, battle, and environment noise nicely spread through the channels in this authentic reproduction of the movie's 70mm multichannel mix. The mystic and resonant score by Maurice Jarre is also available on its own 2.0 stereo track. Rounding out the audio tracks is an excellent full-length commentary from director Volker Schlöndorff, recorded in 1998; either it is licensed from another DVD or this one has been in the works for a long time. Schlöndorff elaborates on the circumstances of filming and has much to say about collaborating with David Bennent and Gunther Grass, as well as the themes of the movie and its individual scenes. Particularly interesting is a discussion of how the funeral scene midway through the film was shot on an ancient handcranked camera. Switching between the four audio tracks has been confined to the menu so the subtitle track will match the audio selection.
Extras are plentiful. In addition to the commentary and music track, a second disc offers two documentaries. First is Volker Schlöndorff Remembers The Tin Drum, which elaborates visually on much of the same material in the commentary, with some areas covered in greater detail. He spends time as well addressing some of the issues covered in the second documentary, Banned in Oklahoma, which details the notorious case of the banning by law of The Tin Drum in a country that ordinarily prides itself on free speech: The United States of America. Specifically, The Tin Drum, Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film 1979, was banned in the state of Oklahoma in 1998 due to the actions of some parties in Oklahoma City who considered it child pornography. Having followed the basic premise of the movie so far, I'm certain that the reader can figure out what's at issue -- Oskar's eventually developing sex drive. Though contextually the story is that of a growing man, and the scenes in question are shot with good taste (apart from the actual method of seduction, which involves food and is a bit icky -- a fact that comes back to bite Oskar on the arse) and no erotic nudity, the officials in question still saw fit to judge the entire film as irredeemable, and set about seizing it without any proper writ. However, fate took a hand in the matter when it turned out that one of the first doors the police knocked on when they were looking for rental copies of The Tin Drum in individual renters' homes was that of enthusiastic ACLU lawyer Michael Camfield. To make a long story short, it is no longer banned, and the interesting tale of how this all came to pass over the course of nearly four years is what's detailed in the meticulous docu, which includes as many available viewpoints as possible. Scary behavior from the Oklahoma government, and colossally ironic given the movie's setting. (If you want another example, investigate the Planet Comics fiasco in OK City from around the same time.)
There is also a selection of deleted scenes, many featuring the Bebra troupe, accompanied not by soundtrack of any sort but with some explanation in the form of commentary by Schlöndorff, in which he explains that these scenes were cut for "reasons of rhythm and storytelling." The footage is interesting, but mostly ancillary material. The deleted scenes run about five minutes. There is also a different ending presented at the script stages, and as mentioned before, there is a reading of the Platform scene by Gunther Grass himself.
Whether or not they live in Oklahoma City, there are some things in this movie that certain people are likely not to want to see. These things are hardly limited to the sexual explorations of a maturing man in a child's body. Among other things, this movie features: female frontal nudity, a frog being boiled alive, ingestion of items not meant for human consumption (both liquid and far-too-solid), consumption of nasty foodstuffs, incestuous relationships, eel harvesting (must be seen to be believed), simulated uterine sets, children relieving themselves in public, and essentially a mélange of the perversity of life in general and life in ascendant Nazi Germany in particular. Caveat emptor as far as the grue is concerned.
It is wholly appropriate that The Tin Drum has been released by the Criterion Collection as this is the kind of movie which that Collection was always meant to represent. High-intentioned but accessible, heavy without plodding, this is the kind of foreign movie people mean when they say they'd like to watch more foreign movies. Rich in narrative, setting, and symbol, The Tin Drum is a film for the ages. It's not just a great movie. It's great literature for the screen, and this edition does it good justice.
Absolutely not guilty. The court hopes that this film's quality will eventually overshadow its bizarre notoriety.
Review content copyright © 2005 Neil Dorsett; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Music Only)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (German)
Running Time: 142 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary by Volker SchlöNdorff
* Isolated Maurice Jarre Score Track
* Deleted Scenes with Commentary by SchlöNdorff
* Volker SchlöNdorff Remembers The Tin Drum
* Banned In Oklahoma
* Contemporary Video Interviews
* Extra Script Scenes, Storyboards, Designs, Promotional Art, Liner Notes
* "The Platform": Gunter Grass Reads from The Tin Drum