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 Blu-Ray
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 though 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 Blu-Ray
The Tin Drum is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioGerman DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Video interview with director Volker Schlöndorff
  • Video interview with film scholar Timothy Corrigan
  • “The Platform,” a rare 1987 recording of Grass reading an excerpt from the source novel
  • TV interview with Schlöndorff and actor David Bennett at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival
  • TV interview with cowriter Jean-Claude Carrière and actor Mario Ardorf
  • TV interview with Schlöndorff and author Günter Grass during filming
  • TV inverview with Schlöndorff after winning the Palm d’Or
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey Macnab and 1978 statements by Grass about the adaptation of his novel
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 15, 2013

    The version of The Tin Drum on Criterion’s new Blu-Ray is not the familiar 142-minute theatrical cut, but rather an expanded 163-minute director’s cut that Volker Schlöndorff assembled in order to better reflect his initial cut of the film before the studio forced him to reduce the running time in order to fulfill his contractual obligation to deliver a shorter film. Criterion’s Schlöndorff-approved high-definition transfer was made from a 35mm interpositive struck from the original camera negative, after which it was color graded and digitally restored. The image, which is presented in its proper 1.66:1 aspect ratio, looks excellent, maintaining a strong filmlike image via a healthy layer of grain and maintenance of the film’s slightly soft-focus look. Colors are largely subdued with the exception of the heavily saturated presence of red, and black levels look good and detail is strong throughout. Criterion’s Blu-Ray also boasts a new remastered DTS-HD 5.1-channel soundtrack, which was mastered from a six-track magnetic element that was made in France for the 1979 70mm blow-up of the film (otherwise it was presented theatrically in monaural).

    For those of you who have it, be sure to hold on to your 2004 two-disc Criterion DVD of The Tin Drum, not only to have a copy of the original theatrical version of the film, but also because a substantial number of supplements that appeared there are nowhere to be found on the new Blu-Ray. Gone missing are director Volker Schlöndorff’s screen-specific audio commentary (obviously, since it’s a different cut of the film); “Volker Schlöndorff Remembers The Tin Drum,” a 20-minute montage of film clips, photographs, sketches, and storyboards; Gary D. Rhodes’ half-hour documentary Banned in Oklahoma about the film’s temporarily ban in Oklahoma after being labeled child pornography in 1998; the English translation of the original unfilmed ending along with a two-minute audio introduction by Schlöndorff; and a stills gallery of production photos, sketches, and designs.

    There are some new additions that somewhat make up for the losses. In lieu of the commentary, we get two substantial new video interviews: Schlöndorff talks for more than an hour about the film’s production, his general thoughts on the nature of adaptation, and, most interestingly, how he decided to recreate the film’s original longer cut, which involved recutting the existing rushes according to his old editing notes and then recording all new dialogue (David Bennent recorded his dialogue, but his voice had to be manipulated to make it sound like a child’s again). In the other interview, film scholar Timothy Corrigan, author of New German Cinema: The Displaced Image, spends 20 minutes talking about Schlöndorff and The Tin Drum within the historical context of the eclectic New German Cinema.

    Held over from the 2004 Criterion DVD 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. We also get “The Platform,” which presents the scene 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 of his novels accompanied by improvisational drummer Günter “Baby” Sommer), and the original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2013 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.

    © 1998 - 2019 - All logos and trademarks in this site are the property of their respective owner.