The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel)

The Tin Drum
(Die Blechtrommel)
Director: Volker Schlöndorff
Screenplay: Jean-Claude Carrière, Volker Schlöndorff, Franz Seitz, with additional dialogue by Günter Grass (based on the novel by Günter Grass)
Stars: Mario Adorf (Alfred Matzerath), Angela Winkler (Agnes Matzerath), David Bennent (Oskar Matzerath), Katharina Thalbach (Maria Matzerath), Daniel Olbrychski (Jan Bronski), Tina Engel (Young Anna Koljaiczek), Berta Drews (Old Anna Koljaiczek, Roland Teubner (Joseph Koljaiczek), Tadeusz Kunikowski (Uncle Vinzenz), Andréa Ferréol (Lina Greff), Heinz Bennent (Greff)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1979
Country: West Germany / Poland / France / Yugoslavia
The Tin Drum DVD
The Tin DrumEver since its publication in 1959, many thought Günter Grass’s fantastical novel The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) was unfilmable. The story of a three-year-old boy who spites the idiocies of the world around him by refusing to grow up, making him into a sort of political Peter Pan, Grass’ novel was a great and controversial achievement, a massive, sprawling, critical epic that told the history of Germany from the beginning of the 20th century to after World War II through the eyes of one of the most original characters in modern literature. Any filmmaker who dared to take on this project faced an uphill battle all the way.

That filmmaker turned out to be Volker Schlöndorff, a former assistant for French filmmakers Louis Malle, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Alain Resnais who had emerged as one of the brightest cinematic voices of the New German Cinema in the 1970s. By necessity, Schlöndorff had to reduce the scope of Grass’ story and tone down some of its more bizarre twists, which unfortunately resulted in the loss of some of Grass’ satirical edges. Throughout The Tin Drum, you can tell that the adult world—with its cheating, feuding, lying, hypocrisy, and warmongering—is being satirized, but it never gets much more specific than that. Ultimately, the film is more memorable for its quirky commingling of the epic and the intimate and its often startling visuals than for any of its big themes.

The casting of the forever-childlike protagonist, Oskar Matzerath, was the first major hurdle to leap in adapting Grass’ novel, and Schlöndorff made the perfect choice in casting David Bennett, the son of actor Heinz Bennett, who had appeared in one of the director’s earlier films, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975). Although David Bennett was 12 years old when the film was shot, he had a growth disorder that made him look six or seven years younger. Thus, he was physically perfect for the role, but it is his performance that really sells it. As the film covers some two decades of Oskar’s life, Bennett is required to convey Oskar’s emotional growth from literally the womb to age 20. On top of that, Oskar is an incredibly complex and often contradictory character. At times, we want to empathize with him and other times it is hard not to want to slap him for his childish egocentrism. He is alternately sweet and mean, compelling and shallow, silly and wise.

As Oskar is the film’s center, everything we see is through his unreliable eyes, often quite literally. Even thought his carefree mother, Agnes (Angela Winkler), is married to a burly shopkeeper named Alfred (Mario Adorf), she is in love with her Polish cousin, Jan (Daniel Olbrychski), who very well may be Oskar’s real father. Oskar decides to stop growing on his third birthday in response to the self-absorbed and childlike behavior he witnesses in the adults attending his birthday party. Although he literally wills himself to stop growing, he throws himself down the cellar stairs to provide a convenient medical excuse for his lack of growth.

It is also on his third birthday that he is given the eponymous tin drum, which he will carry with him for the rest of his life. The tin drum is a symbol of his refuge in the body of a child, and he plays it as a way of drowning out the increasingly insane world around him. For reasons that are never explained, he also has the ability to shatter glass with his piercing scream, which further isolates him from the rest of humankind and aligns him with outsiders and fringe-dwellers. This is particularly crucial once the Nazis come to power and seize control of the city of Danzig, where Oskar lives (it is also the city where Grass spent his childhood). The Nazis, after all, are modern history’s primary symbol of the worst levels to which humanity can stoop, and one of the film’s most powerful evocations is the way it highlights the essential childishness of Nazism without ever minimizing the horrors of what it perpetrated.

Throughout the film, Schlöndorff and cinematographer Igor Luther punctuate the film with startling imagery that often borders on the surreal. The tone is set early on when we see Oskar still in his mother’s womb, surrounded in hazy red comfort until he is forced out into the world that he ultimately rejects; the first-person view of the birthing gives us a strong connection to Oskar, even as his voice-over narration plays an amusing counterpoint. There are also scenes of morbid grotesquerie, such as a playful family outing on the beach that ends with a run-in with a fisherman using a decaying horse’s head to catch eels, which eventually results in Agnes committing suicide by literally eating herself to death with fish.

Yet, for all its fantastical exaggerations, one of The Tin Drum’s primary strengths is the way in which Schlöndorff manages to ground it in a realistic texture of lived experience. The surreal and the real clash and commingle throughout the film, most notably in the scene that recreates the battle at the Polish post office in Danzig, which was the official start of World War II. The scene is a meticulous recreation of a well-known historical event, yet Schlöndorff plays it through Oskar’s point of view, which takes us inside the post office and juxtaposes the fevered mania of the Polish rebels’ subversive standoff with Oskar’s single-minded desire for another tin drum, the only thing of real importance to him in the world gone mad.

The Tin Drum is often noted as the film most responsible for announcing the arrival of the German New Wave. It won the 1979 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (the first German film to do so) and also shared the coveted Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It is certainly an intriguing and highly ambitious film, one of great artistry and even greater chutzpah. Even though its thematic focus is not as honed as its source novel, Schlöndorff’s adaptation is still a remarkable film.

The Tin Drum Director-Approved Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioGerman Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
German Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
SupplementsAudio commentary by director Volker Schlöndorff
Deleted scenes with director commentary
“Volker Schlöndorff Remembers The Tin Drum”–montage of sketches, photos, and storyboards with running commentary
“News From the Front”–collection of video interviews
  • Schlöndorff and actor David Bennett at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival
  • cowriter Jean-Claude Carrière and actor Mario Ardorf
  • Schlöndorff and author Günter Grass during filming
  • Schlöndorff after winning the Palm d’Or
    “The Platform,” a rare 1987 recording of Grass reading an excerpt from the source novel
    Excerpt from the original screenplay’s unfilmed ending
    Banned in Oklahoma documentary
    Stills gallery
    Original theatrical trailer
    Statement by Günter Grass about adapting his novel to the screen
    New essay by film scholar Eric Rentschler
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
    Release DateMay 18, 2004

    The Tin Drum was previously available in Region 1 on DVD from Kino in a nonanamorphic widescreen transfer. Criterion has improved on that previous edition with a new, high-definition anamorphic widescreen transfer taken from the original negative and then digitally restored to near perfection. Colors, contrast, and detail are absolutely fantastic, and the image is free of any noticeable damage of any kind. There is some discrepancy with the aspect ratio, though, as the packaging indicates 1.78:1, but the image is clearly pillarboxed, giving it a ratio much closer to the intended 1.66:1.

    The original German language soundtrack is available in both the original monaural and in a new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. The remastered 5.1 track sounds extremely good for a 25-year-old movie, although the surround effects are understandably limited. Maurice Jarre’s musical score benefits the most, and it is also available on a separate isolated music track.

    Director Volker Schlöndorff’s screen-specific audio commentary, which was recorded in 1998 and also appeared on the Kino DVD release, is an excellent listen. Schlöndorff speaks at length about the making of the film, how he came to cast David Bennett in the crucial key role, and the many tough decisions he had to make in adapting the source novel to the screen.

    The second disc in this two-disc set is packed with supplements, beginning with five minutes of deleted scenes and clips that were discovered attached to the end of the original film negative during the telecine process. Unfortunately, there is no surviving audio, but Schlöndorff provides a running commentary explaining what is happening in each clip and why it was cut (these clips are presented in anamorphic widescreen and have excellent image quality, comparable to the film itself). Schlöndorff gets to discuss the film even more in “Volker Schlöndorff Remembers The Tin Drum,” a 20-minute montage of film clips, photographs, sketches, and storyboards. Although this montage was originally created in 2001 for a German DVD edition, Schlöndorff has recorded a new audio track for this Criterion release. “News From the Front” is a collection of video interviews from French television. They include Schlöndorff and actor David Bennett at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, cowriter Jean-Claude Carrière and actor Mario Ardorf, Schlöndorff and author Günter Grass during filming, and Schlöndorff after winning the Palm d’Or. “The Platform” gives us the scene from the film in which Oskar disrupts a Nazi rally with his drumming and lets us watch it while listening to Grass reading that section of his novel (the recording is taken from a 1987 LP that features Grass reading excerpts of two his novels accompanied by improvisational drummer Günter “Baby” Sommer). Many people first heard of the The Tin Drum when it was temporarily banned in Oklahoma after being labeled child pornography in 1998. This ridiculous incident is well covered in Gary D. Rhodes’ half-hour documentary Banned in Oklahoma. Also included is the English translation of the original unfilmed ending along with a two-minute audio introduction by Schlöndorff; a stills gallery of production photos, sketches, and designs; and the original theatrical trailer (presented in anamorphic widescreen).

    Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and Argos Films and Seitz GmbH

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

    James Kendrick offers, exclusively on Qnetwork, over 2,500 reviews on a wide range of films. All films have a star rating and you can search in a variety of ways for the type of movie you want. If you're just looking for a good movie, then feel free to browse our library of Movie Reviews.

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