Review: The Tin Drum

The director’s cut of The Tin Drum doesn’t cast the story in a new light, though it does deepen a few of its subplots.

The Tin Drum
Photo: Janus Films

In spite of restoring some 20 minutes of footage that had been previously cut to please distributors, Volker Schlöndorff’s director’s cut of his 1979 classic, The Tin Drum, adapted from the eponymous novel by Günter Grass, doesn’t cast the story in a new light, though it does deepen a few of its subplots.

The Tin Drum tells the story of Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent), an inhabitant of the free state of Danzig, who, at the precious age of three, receives a drum for his birthday and, simultaneously, decides to stunt his growth by falling from the stairs. In Schlöndorff’s expressionist adaptation, Oskar recognizes from the start that the world dominated by adults, marked by baseness, cruelty, and violence, isn’t worth entering. The plot starts before Oskar’s birth, when his grandmother, Anna (Tina Engel), hides under her skirts a runaway from the police who gives her oral sex. Forbidden eros dominates the scene and becomes the movie’s main theme. The action jumps some 20 years, to an older Anna (now played by Berta Drews) and her grown-up daughter, Agnes (Angela Winkler), soon married to a German cook, Alfred (Mario Adorf), but madly in love with her Polish cousin, Jan (Daniel Obrychski). Out of this trio, Oskar is born, a boy who mythologizes his origins, narrating his birth in the voiceover. Schlöndorff pictures the blue-eyed Oskar hiding inside his mother’s womb. Shot in vivid red, the passage into the world is frightening, and presages the bloodshed to follow.

With his stunted growth, the magical power to shatter glass with his scream, but also flares of cruelty, Oskar personifies the tragedy of two nations on the brink of war. A boyish-looking dwarf whose features never age, Oskar appeared mostly outside the greater forces of history in the original film version. He was an observer rather than participant in the tragedies, domestic and political, that claim the lives of his mother, of Jan, killed in the first days of the war, during a storming of the Danzig post office by the German troops, and of his adoptive father, Alfred, who will go from being an ardent Brown Shirt to a disillusioned wreck. The restored version, however, takes away some of Oskar’s invincibility. We learn that the Gestapo was after him the whole time, in an attempt to carry out its racial cleansing and euthanasia policy against handicapped children, among others. The fact that Alfred protects Oskar complicates Oskar’s final betrayal, in which he, perhaps innocently but with chilling deliberateness, sticks a Nazi pin into Alfred’s hand. Terrified that the Soviets liberating Danzig and raiding his house will find him out, Alfred swallows the pin and chokes, startling a soldier who shoots him.

The other additions to the plot aren’t as telling, including when Jan kisses Oskar on the forehead, confessing to Agnes that he can’t bear hiding his fatherhood. The scene isn’t revelatory, since Oskar has been spying on the two lovers, peeping at their caresses, following his mother to her secret trysts. His stunted growth is his protection, necessitated by his tragic understanding of desire as both inevitable and taboo, but it proves fragile. He internalizes his mother’s guilt, her divided consciousness between two nations, two men, which propels her to suicide. And although nothing indicates that he deliberately leads Jan to the post office on the day of the German offensive (he wants a postal worker to fix his drum), Oskar frames himself as the culprit. If Oskar, as son of two doomed parents, believes himself to be a monster, and sometimes acts like one, he also incarnates enough pain to stir our empathy.

A moment of grotesque levity comes in one restored scene, in which Agnes and a female neighbor read passages from an erotic novel aloud. Oskar expands on his literary tastes that include Wolfgang Goethe. Oskar, the town’s freak and presumed halfwit, is a sage for his own time: Tragically implicated, neither German nor Polish enough, he decides he might as well defy being human. Schlöndorff’s, and Grass’s, great feat is having Oskar emerge as a creature all his own. He doesn’t succumb to political euphoria, worshipping Hitler, but instead uses his musical gift to confound a youth orchestra at a Nazi fête so that an orderly lineup of military salutes is soon swaying and prancing to a new beat. He’s also guided by the primal, possessive love for his mother, and women in general. Only when the war ends does he discard his drum and decide to grow again. We never see Oskar as an adult, and don’t need to. His utopia hasn’t shielded him from pain—his personal price being existential solitude. Having entertained soldiers at the front as a member of a traveling circus, and having lost his great love, the clairvoyant dwarf Roswitha, to a bomb, Oskar parts from his native Kashubian land.

 Cast: David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler, Daniel Olbrychski, Katharina Thalbach, Heinz Bennent, Friz Hakl, Andrew Ferreol, Mariella Oliveri, Tina Engel, Berta Drews  Director: Volker Schlöndorff  Screenwriter: Jean-Claude Carrière, Volker Schlöndorff, Franz Seitz  Distributor: Janus Films  Running Time: 163 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1968  Buy: Video

Ela Bittencourt

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, Film Comment, The Notebook, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, and other publications.

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