Friday, March 05, 2010

The Tin Drum

Oskar doesn't like grown-ups very much. Upon his first real glimpse of adults, at a party his parents hold, he sees decadence, immorality, blind fascism; it's a group of wholly unpleasant people. Among the guests are a Nazi obsessed with the idyllic beauty of the Hitler Youth (read: chickenhawk), and his own uncle lustfully pursuing his mother. He decides then and there he is not going to grow up, not if this is what he's to become. He's going to stay three forever; he'll be happy enough with his favorite toy, his tin drum. Oskar (David Bennent) stages an accident, throwing himself down the cellar stairs. His family and doctor attribute this fall to his sudden change in development. But the truth is (like all little people, it is revealed) the choice was his to stop growing.

It may be an understatement to say Oskar's development, or lack thereof, is allegorical to Danzig's own history between the Wars, and German history as a whole during the transition from the Weimar Republic to the Nazi Reich. [Danzig was an area between Germany and Poland, set up as a semiautonomous state after WWI, a sort of melting pot for Germans, Poles, and Slavs.] Oskar has two father figures in his life: the man married to his mother, a strong-willed Nazi, and his uncle, the weaker, decadent Pole. And either one might actually be his biological father. His mother (Angela Winkler) can't chose between the two, and keeps them both as lovers.

In one unforgettable scene, Oskar and his three parental figures, "this trinity" as he calls them, happen upon a fisherman while on a family outing. They watch as the fisherman dredges up a rotting horse head from the bottom of the bay. Dozens of eels slither from its mouth and eye sockets, a good haul for any fisherman. But as is noted, during the war, one could catch eels as big as your arm. Things aren't as well as when the fighting raged on.

Oskar is an archetypal outsider, but that is perhaps just the natural result of his unique parentage. He is the offspring of two cultures that are not so much converging with one another as they are colliding head on. While other kids in the neighborhood treat Oskar much as you would expect, forcing him to eat frog and piss soup, he finds solace in his drum and his "secret art." Oskar's screams can shatter glass.

Oskar grows, mentally, if not physically…

He watches his parents fuck, and fight. His mother gorges herself to death, eating fish until it kills her. The Nazis invade. His uncle is killed in the first battle of WW2, at the Danzig post office. And Oskar falls in love. He doesn't even let his stature as a three year old prevent him from bedding the girl and knocking her up. His father, of course, naturally assumes the child is his.

And eventually, Oskar joins the Nazis as a member of a troupe of midget entertainers. He travels to occupied France, performing as Oskar the Drummer, shattering champagne glasses to the delight of Nazi officers and their wives. Anything for troop morale, it seems. The act makes it all the way to Normandy, in an ill-timed tour of the Western front.

By the time Oskar makes it back to Danzig, the Russians are liberating the city. They gun down Oskar's father (Mario Adorf), leaving him an orphan. It's only then that he finally decides he must grow up, tossing his precious tin drum onto his father's makeshift casket.

Visually stunning, with a fantastic story and world-class performances, this film is not for the weak of heart. But it is a truly amazing film. See it.

Directed by Volker Schlöndorff • R • 1979 • 142 minutes


  1. This is my favorite book, and I thought they could never make such a complicated, aesthetically innovative book into a movie that even kind of sort of worked. But it does, fabulously. Me of little faith.

    Will there be Herzog in this series? I'm in a Herzog phase of late. It's a long phase. Dude is prolific.

  2. oooh, herzog! that would be awesome. i don't own any and haven't seen any in years. but i'll keep it in mind for a later date.