Movie Review – The Tin Drum

The Tin Drum (1979)
Written by Volker Schlöndorff
Directed by Volker Schlöndorff, Jean-Claude Carrière, and Franz Seitz

I have not read Herman Hesse’s novel of the same name, so I won’t be able to compare this version of The Tin Drum to its source material. However, the film feels dense & literary, which leads me to believe it is likely not too far removed from the book. This decision makes the picture heavy-handed and obvious as the story progresses. Director Volker Schlöndorff’s career includes many adaptations, including the Dustin Hoffman-led Death of a Salesman and the feature film version of The Handmaid’s Tale. Schlöndorff feels very different from his peers like Herzog, Wenders, and Fassbinder; he is a little more straightforward & direct. However, there’s no mistaking what The Tin Drum is about, and that may not be a great thing as it fails to challenge the audience to think in ways that it could, given a defter touch.

Oskar Matzerath (David Bennett) narrates his life, starting before his mother’s birth. His heritage is Polish & Kashubian, born & raised in the Free City of Danzig before the Nazis eventually took the nation of Poland. Oscar’s mother, Agnes (Angela Winkler), marries Alfred, a chef, but carries on an affair with her cousin Jan. When Oscar comes along, Agnes is unsure who is the actual father with Jan & eventually, Oscar believes it is him. On Oscar’s third birthday, he is given a tin drum as a gift and observes his parents & their friends’ drunken revelry. He’s disgusted by them and vows to never grow up, to remain a child forever. Throughout his life, the boy watches his parents fall apart due to the stresses of life and the rise of the Nazis as they begin their invasion of neighboring countries. As he gets older, the biological urges inside him take over, and he desires adult intimacy which comes with all sorts of apparent complications.

This is a highly episodic movie that is a reflection of its literary roots. There is never an overarching plot; instead, Oscar goes into various situations and suffers the aftermath of his choices. It doesn’t build to a crescendo, but thematic lines run through these moments that speak to a larger message. The end product is a mix of some fantastic scenes & cinematography but needs more narrative cohesion to unite it as a complete piece of cinema. You won’t be bored while watching The Tin Drum, and I don’t doubt you’ll “get it,” but I don’t suspect you’d desire to rewatch it. However, if you pay attention, you’ll comprehend what is being said here with little work. 

There are many attempts at mocking the Nazis, tying sexual dysfunction to the ideology, which I don’t think is a misstep. So much about fascism is wrapped up in the fetishization of iconography and mysticism. A family friend is an enthusiastic member of the Nazi Party and particularly enjoys working with the Hitler Youth. Oscar tells us how this man enjoys bringing the boys down into his basement for “combat training,” which involves a lot of groping & wrestling on the ground. The man’s wife is left unattended, which leads to her and Oscar having a sexual relationship when he’s chronologically 16 or 17. Her husband gets caught and appears to hang himself in shame, but the door is left open that this may have actually been a murder.

One of the standout scenes is when Oscar sits near a band on stage during a Nazi rally. When they play, he begins to drum, and dissonant rhythms confuse the marching Nazis. They go through a series of dances, even waltzing with each other before a downpour of rain washes away the event. The point is clear here that these are people easily manipulated by whoever is feeding them “music.” The technical choreography of it is very impressive, and Schlöndorff makes some thoughtful choices about how to shoot the scene that makes it visually engaging. Again, however, the theme being presented is pronounced.

Oscar is also a nasty figure for a protagonist, which is one of the picture’s strengths. He wants to see himself as better than the adults around him, but he is just as cruel as them. When Oscar finds out his secret love has been sleeping with his (step?)father, he punches her in the stomach. Oscar’s true desire to remain a child is not to maintain his innocence but rather because he refuses to accept the responsibilities of growing up. That part of the film resonated with me because I’ve been observing such behavior, especially among the population of the States. So many adults, from Boomers to Gen Xers to Millennials, seem desperate to cling to fluff & childishness not because they want to keep themselves open to new ideas or marvel at the universe but as a protective blanket from the harshness of life in the Western world. Look at the temper tantrums thrown at fast food eateries when someone doesn’t “have it their way.” It’s a nation full of Oscars in the States, banging on their tin drums and squealing when they don’t get what they want. There’s no coherent effort to organize and improve conditions for everyone; instead, it’s reactionary nonsense; people focus entirely on themselves and their immediate wants rather than ensuring all have what they need.

Americans are Oscar now. When the novel was written, it was a reflection of Europe’s apprehension to directly engage with what was happening as the Nazis rose to power. The same happens in the United States, as right-wing factions are growing in strength in state legislatures. Meanwhile, the do-nothing American federal government wags its finger and issues declarations of “disappointment” instead of doing well, anything. In my home state of Tennessee, they are doing much screeching and a lot of drum banging, but if you look a little closer, people are losing interest as the news cycle churns. Everyone desperately wishes for a messiah, religious, political, or otherwise, to just show up and deal with the problem. The people are terrified that they might have to continuously engage in political organizing because it is a long, arduous process. 

I don’t expect the Nazis in America to be too worried about the Oscar-fied population. You just throw toys or candy at them, and they immediately become distracted. However, being directly part of the fascists or simply “passive,” the blood will be on the hands of all Americans who choose to do nothing. They are as guilty as those who actively perpetuate suffering and bang their drum, marching towards eventual genocide. It is too late when Oscar decides he wants to grow up. A rock strikes his head, and he tumbles into his ex-lover’s grave. The window to do something is only open for so long. Often by the time the people decide to do something it’s closed; they must then deal with the horrific fallout of the evils they ignored for so long.


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