Adapting Nobel laureate Günter Grass’s 1959 novel The Tin Drum allowed Volker Schlöndorff to tap into areas of his aesthetic sensibility that previous films like The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum and Coup de Grâce—more or less straightforward exercises in alienated Brechtian tragedy—had given little indication even existed. With an emphasis on absurdist black comedy and the grotesque, Schlöndorff refracts an oft-portrayed period of German history, the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi party, through the lens of an adult-oriented fairy tale, complete with voiceover narration that (however unreliably) establishes the subjunctive lexicon of “Once upon a time…” As related by three-year-old Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent), who elects to remain stunted at that age when confronted with intimations of the hypocrisy and deceit inherent in the adult world, The Tin Drum brashly equates the tenor of the time when an entire country gave themselves over to the dubious allure of “fascinating fascism” with the capricious, appetitive narcissism of childhood. Accordingly, Oskar’s tin drum serves as a fetish object; when he’s dispossessed of it, he emits a piercing shriek that’s capable of shattering glass. This primordial plaint against deprivation elevates childlike petulance into something almost apocalyptic, as in the scene (which adorned most of the film’s original poster art) where Oskar stands atop a cathedral’s bell tower and uses his shriek to create havoc in the streets below.
The Tin Drum’s opening scene neatly encapsulates the film’s visual and thematic approach. Under a lowering gray sky, a lone woman sits peeling potatoes in the middle of an immense mud-spattered field. Tiny figures appear along the horizon; approaching at a run, one of them turns out to be a fleeing prisoner. The woman, Oskar’s maternal grandmother, Anna Bronski (Tina Engels), gives him shelter under her voluminous skirts—a sanctuary he occupies just long enough to conceive Oskar’s mother. Schlöndorff shoots this scene, dated 1899, with a hand-cranked camera appropriate to the early days of silent cinema. The resultant image is just formally distracting enough, occluded as it is by heavy grain flickering in time with the variable cranking, to jolt the viewer out of a complacent reliance on photographic verisimilitude. In other words, it’s an alienation device clearly allied to Oskar’s questionable relation of events, evidence that Schlöndorff was able at times to incorporate his earlier Brechtian inclinations into The Tin Drum. From the beginning, sexuality is linked to criminality and transgression, prefiguring not only the incestuous overtones of the love triangle between Oskar’s mother, Agnes (Angela Winkler), her cousin, Jan Bronski (Daniel Olbrychski), and Oskar’s “presumptive father,” Alfred Matzerath (Mario Adorf), but also the queasy disparity in ages that marks Oskar’s sexual relations with the 16-year-old housemaid Maria (Katharina Thalbach).
Structurally, The Tin Drum moves between certain privileged historical moments (Kristallnacht, the Normandy invasion), strung loosely along a narrative through line like so many black pearls, at which Oskar happens to be in attendance. Schlöndorff’s approach to this historical context is suitably oblique. Apart from some authentic sepia-toned newsreel footage of Hitler standing beneath the Eiffel Tower, the Fuhrer is glimpsed within the world of the film as nothing more than a disembodied saluting hand driving in a motorcade past ranks of adoring onlookers. Further blurring the line between exegetic and diegetic registers, Schlöndorff uses the same sepia tint to segue into a Nazi rally that Oskar disrupts—in perhaps the film’s most bravura passage—by forcing the attendees to march (or, in this case, waltz) to the beat of his own drum.
The director’s cut of The Tin Drum isn’t a radically different entity. If anything, the reinstated scenes help to deepen the film’s ambiguity and ethical complexity. Most resonantly, Alfred emerges as a more fully fleshed-out character, capable of real love for his “presumptive son” and even of self-sacrifice. All of which makes his eventual embrace of national socialism all the more troubling, his ultimate fate far more tragic. Early in the film, another restored scene works as a kind of aesthetic manifesto for the overall film. While his mother and a neighbor are absorbed in reading the salacious exploits of Rasputin, Oskar breaks the fourth wall to address the camera, confessing that he’s developed his own taste in literature. Oskar’s burgeoning sensibility mashes together the wicked excesses of Rasputin (seen in an imaginary tableau vivant cavorting with naked nubile girls, and played, incidentally, by screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière) and the more philosophical ruminations of Goethe’s Elective Affinities.
Similarly, The Tin Drum embraces the antic humor of a disrupted Nazi rally alongside the elegiac vision of history as an interminable requiem evident in the last notable scene that’s been restored: In the wake of the Russian liberation of Danzig, a recently freed Jewish shopkeeper named Fajngold (Wojciech Pszoniak) arrives at the Matzerath grocery with papers giving him ownership of the property. Fajngold trails behind him the ghosts of wife and children lost to him in the camps, a living embodiment of the loss and displacement that befalls the remaining Mazerath clan in the film’s final scenes.
Volker Schlöndorff and DP Igor Luther patterned the film’s visual palette after little Oskar’s beloved tin toys; as a result, tones tend to fall in the brown and copper range. Only the bright red of the eponymous drum stands out, a flourish reflected in the various shades of red allotted to Agnes Matzerath’s costume design. Necessarily, given the overall drabness of this scheme, The Tin Drum isn’t exactly awash in chromatic flair. Criterion’s 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray upgrade presents the film in its 1.66:1 OAR, tweaked slightly from 1.78:1 of the 2004 DVD edition. A good bit brighter than before, the 1080p transfer is also far crisper and cleaner. The 5.1 Master Audio surround track attempts to open up the dynamically limited sound design with modest success. Maurice Jarre’s score leans heavily on the eerily reverberating twang of the fujara, an instrument that’s halfway between a shepherd’s pipe and a didgeridoo.
Criterion marches to the beat of a different drummer when it comes to the supplements on this Blu-ray of The Tin Drum director’s cut, switching out some of the older extras (like the director’s commentary track) for spanking new interviews, and eliminating altogether the fascinating and often mordant documentary "Banned in Oklahoma." Film scholar Timothy Corrigan situates Schlöndorff within the canon of new German cinema, discusses his penchant for literary adaptations, and characterizes his approach to narrative as "only superficially conventional." Schlöndorff, in a characteristically deprecating hour-long interview, describes the formative influence reading Günter Grass’s novel had on him in the late 1950s. He lays out the laborious task of arriving at a filmable script, which required the assistance of frequent Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière, as well as dialogue contributions from Grass himself. Schlöndorff talks about his decision to limit viewers more or less to Oskar’s viewpoint, even when the camera isn’t physically assuming his POV. He also enumerates some influential precursors: how Fellini’s Amarcord, for example, colored his approach to the material with its deft intermingling of personal and political history, and how the Brazilian film Macunaima pointed the way to film the grotesque sequence depicting Oskar’s birth. Lastly, Schlöndorff describes the process of putting together the director’s cut, which necessitated extensive redubbing for the parts of the film that had been preserved without sound.
The remaining extras have been ported over from the DVD edition. First off, "The Platform" has Grass reading excerpts from his novel over the scene of the disrupted Nazi rally. Brief (and mostly lightweight) TV interviews spotlight Schlöndorff, Grass, Carrière, and actors David Bennent and Mario Adorf. More interesting is footage of Schlöndorff at the Cannes Film Festival taken just prior to the announcement of the Palme D’Or, which The Tin Drum shared that year with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Less self-effacing than usual, Schlöndorff invokes David and Goliath to explain how his film points the way for the future of "European art cinema." The illustrated booklet contains an informative essay by Geoffrey Macnab, as well as statements from Grass about the film adaptation.
Criterion’s release of Volker Schlöndorff’s director’s cut is occasion enough to bang The Tin Drum loudly. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve provided an impressive new transfer and some choice new extras to round out the package.