THE TIN DRUM (1979) – CLASSIC FILM REVIEW by PAUL LAIGHT
**THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS**
I’d never seen this film before and am so glad I did because it now in my top twenty best films I have EVER witnessed. It is a tour-de-force of writing, directing, acting, design, narration, humour, drama, sound and imagination. Based on Gunter Grass’ exceptional novel The Tin Drum – directed by Volker Schlondorff – it is set in the realistic backdrop of post-World War 1 Germany, and during World War 2, before veering into magical realism and surrealism to present a giddy allegorical tale of some wonder.
The comical opening contains a prologue which sets the ambiguous tone of humour and darkness. It establishes the ancestry of our leading character Oskar Matzerath (amazing David Bennent) and clearly echoes and influences current filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coens and Wes Anderson with its’ curious oddity. From there on Oskar himself enters the world and while initially reluctant he is forced into life and what a life that is!
Born with the mind of an adult, at the age of three, Oskar decides that he will NOT grow up for as long as he chooses. Anyone who crosses him is subject to a visceral scream which is loud enough to shatter glass. In addition, Oskar also smashes a tin drum incessantly revealing a psychotic pathology which disregards the pain and suffering of those around him. My reading is that Oskar is representative of the rise of fascism and Hitler in these difficult socio-political times for Germany. This idea is further supported by the fact his mother has two men chasing her affection; a gruff German grocer, Alfred, and gentler Polish man, Jan; and either could be Oskar’s father. These are divisive and confusing times for Germany, and a child, especially one who is as precocious, strange and violent as Oskar.
The meat of the film is continual conflict, death and dark situations. The scenes on the beach with eels being captured using a dead horse’s head is full of symbolism and a black humour I will never forget. More conflict for Oskar ensues as he rejects all authority including religion. When his mother dies, seemingly from overwhelming guilt, and his friend, a Jewish toymaker, commits suicide following Nazi oppression, Oskar’s life is further stained by death. Latterly, the film enters a stage where – while he is still physically a three-year-old – he hits puberty and become sexually active. The explicit sex scenes involving Maria, a sixteen year old shop girl, are disturbing and unforgettable and this leads to further conflict with Oskar’s father who eventually marries Maria. Anger and jealousy provokes Oskar so much he literally runs off with the circus and becomes part of a troupe that entertains German soldiers during the war. It is not long though before further tragedy strikes and his strange romance with dwarf singer Roswitha, ends suddenly with her demise.
The Tin Drum is intense, visceral and brave filmmaking. While it uses history as a backbone, its’ muscle, skin and clothes are eccentricity, allegory and insanity. It was one of the most financially successful German films of the era and won the 1979 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. I guess I missed it because it is rarely shown on television, no doubt due to the controversial sex scenes involving 11 year-old Bennent. Overall, it is one of the most original stories I have seen on screen and the child actor who played Oskar was a revelation. I have rarely been so horrified, moved and made to laugh as much as I have by a recent cinema visit. I would heartily recommend this film to anyone serious about making films and those who demand intensity in their cinema viewing.