Criterion // 1979 // 163 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 11th, 2013
A savage, sweeping epic of society in chaos.
"To tell the truth, I prefer to be a member of the audience, and let my art flower in secret."
Oskar Matzerath (David Bennett, She Hate Me) is a young German boy celebrating his third birthday. As a present, he's been given a shiny new tin drum. During the party, Oskar overhears that he will be inheriting his family's grocery store when he becomes an adult. He has no desire to be burdened with such responsibility, so he simply determines that he's going to stop growing. From that day forth, Oskar grows mentally but remains permanently trapped in the body of a 3-year-old. He spends much of his time pounding on his drum and perfecting a scream that is capable of shattering glass. As World War II approaches and Germany goes through some major social changes, Oscar finds himself increasingly pressured to take sides.
The premise I've described above may make The Tin Drum a little weird, but believe me, that's just the tip of the iceberg. This is an exceptionally strange film stuffed to the brim with metaphorical ideas, a nonsensical story with a very real subtext. I'm still not sure whether I actually like the movie, as it's one of those ambitious movies that manages to work better below the surface than above. As a parable about German society, it's thought-provoking and intriguing (not to mention complex enough to deserve an epic tome of literary and historical footnotes). As a darkly whimsical story about a stubborn three-year-old, it's overlong and exasperating (though peppered with memorably bizarre and witty moments).
Oskar is essentially designed as a stand-in for much of Germany during the rise of Adolf Hitler. Rather than actually dealing with the realities of life, Oskar simply chooses to feign childlike innocence and enjoy life in ignorantly blissful fashion. He thinks of himself as impartial, as he isn't forced to take sides in the war due to the fact that others regard him as a helpless child. However, as the film proceeds, the tale makes it abundantly clear than inaction doesn't always translate into neutrality. It's an atypically nuanced statement on just how easy it can be for a society to slip into fascism, but there are certainly moments in which I couldn't help but wonder what it would look like if someone had just made a somewhat more direct movie about that subject (then I remembered: Michael Haneke's great The White Ribbon). Still, my task is to review the film I've been given, not the one I'd prefer to see.
The film is based on a novel by Gunter Grass, who praised director Volker Schlondorff for successfully capturing the spirit of his book. The movie certainly feels very literary, as its overflowing story and affection for metaphor often make it feel more like a novel than a traditional movie. The tale is even larger in this new extended cut of the film (technically a "director's cut," though Schlondorff claims to dislike the term). For the most part, the scenes merely flesh out what previously existed rather than adding anything new to the mix. The most striking new addition is a scene in which Oskar goes all House of Cards and delivers a monologue directly into the camera about philosophy. It's a moment designed to underline just how intelligent and savvy this kid really is, despite the fact that he seems intent on behaving otherwise for much of the film. Never mind the innocent appearance; this is one precocious little brat.
This was my first viewing of The Tin Drum, and I have to confess that I don't know whether I'll be able to sit through it again. Not because I found it a waste of time; there's certainly plenty to chew on and the film has some intriguing points to make. No, the reason I don't really wish to sit through the film again is that it contains some exceptionally disturbing material, which I'm not particularly keen to witness more than once. To begin with, there's the gross-out stuff -- live eels being pulled out of a severed cow head while a woman pukes violently in the background, a woman eating raw fish (head, scales and all) and so on. Some of that material is stomach-churning, but the really disturbing stuff involves placing young actor David Bennett into a variety of explicit sexual situations. Though the character is supposed to be in his late teens by the time these scenes take place, Bennett was only twelve years old when the movie was filmed (the film was the subject of court battles after it was declared obscene in Oklahoma County). While I don't think the movie qualifies as child pornography, the decision to put a young actor like Bennett into some of the situations they put him into is questionable. I'll put it this way: if it had been a twelve year-old girl acting opposite an adult male, the outrage would have been much louder. Some will undoubtedly find my concerns prudish and needless, but I'm a pretty desensitized movie buff and some of the material The Tin Drum offered made me a bit uncomfortable. I can only assume that others may react the same way.
The Tin Drum: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray) has received a solid 1080p/1.66:1 transfer. While the film's palette tends to be on the drab side (thus preventing the image from every really grabbing the viewer's attention), it's clean and well-preserved. A moderate measure of grain is onhand, giving things a very natural filmic look. Flesh tones are natural and blacks are reasonably deep. There's a bit of bothersome noise here and there, but it's not too prominent. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is sturdy, presenting the dialogue and Maurice Jarre's jittery score with crisp clarity. During the louder moments the track feels a little flat, but for the most part it gets the job done nicely. Supplements include an extensive new interview with Schlondorff (68 minutes), an interview with film scholar Timothy Corrigan (21 minutes), some old television footage spotlighting the film (four pieces that run 1-5 minute each), an audio recording of Grass reading from his novel (accompanied by footage from the film), a trailer and a booklet featuring essays by Grass and Michael Atkinson.
The Tin Drum is a troubling, ambitious, innovative and tedious film. In some ways, the 162-minute running time is scant considering how many things the film is attempting to cover. In other ways, it feels a lot longer than it needs to be. It's worth seeing, but that statement comes with a lot of caveats.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 163 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Reading