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Blu-ray Review: The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) – The Criterion Collection

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It is quite often said by most science teachers in the English-speaking world that “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” While it tends not to be muttered as often as another expression that frequently finds itself inserted into the occasional conversation — “When one door closes, another door opens” — both sayings tend to apply in almost every aspect of reality as well as fiction. Take, for example, when somebody makes a powerful artistic motion picture that succeeds in captivating the minds of its viewers worldwide. It is both an action as well as the closing of a door; signifying that nobody can quite compete to this marvel of achievement.

And then, much like the resurgence of the worst Mexican food experience you’ve ever had the misfortune of enduring, somebody opens another door as if to say “Well, we can make movies, too, you know!” the reaction occurs. Now, being a self-educated bad movie scholar, I tend to see the lousy rip-offs of A-List hits prior to the originals themselves. Most of the time, it’s done in a painfully blatant manner. But then there are those odd and incredibly weird additions to the annals of banal moving film — many of which go unnoticed by mainstream moviegoers due to the accounting of something they tend to refer to as “taste” — that defy all known logic and almost make you want to cry because you just can’t figure out what kind of drugs the filmmakers were on.

No, I’m not talking about Volker Schlöndorff’s 1979 adaptation of Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum here, kids (though I will be in a spell). I’m actually referring to the god-awful 1980 Italian zombie flick Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror. In addition to an abundance of gore and some of the dumbest human characters ever underdeveloped on celluloid, it featured one of the biggest conundrums of all-time: the inclusion of a creepy-looking diminutive actor (the great Peter Bark) portraying a twelve-year-old kid who happens to have a nauseating Oedipus complex for his mum. This leads to several truly disturbing moments as tensions mount and the living turn into reanimated corpses with an appetite for human flesh.

It has also lead to much befuddlement amongst my fellow bad movie scholars, who have spent many an overlong second or two wondering just what the heck those silly Italians were thinking (or smoking, perhaps). I, too, was at a loss to figure out the reasoning behind it all — until I finally, one day, laid my eyes on The Tin Drum. And then it all made sense. Well, it kind of made a little bit of sense: the tilt-your-head-to-the-side-and-squint kind of sense. It might help if you’re me, I might add (and I could very well be in need of some sort of medication) — but read on and judge for yourselves, people.

Spectacularly bringing the first two-thirds of Günter Gross’ epic black comedy of surrealism to life, Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum centers of a lad named Oskar Matzerath; brought to life here in an unbelievably superb performance by David Bennett — who was only eleven years old at the time of filming, and effectively plays his character from birth to adulthood without ever changing his physical appearance one bit. Born several years after World War I into an odd relationship between his grocer father, Alfred (Mario Adorf); his mother Agnes (Angela Winkler), and his mother’s cousin, Jan Bronski (Daniel Olbrychski), Oskar emerges from the womb as fully-perceptive and mentally-mature as most adults wish they were, and immediately disappointed with the world around him.

At the age of three, Oskar vows to never grow another inch in size. To ensure such, he takes a leap down the stairs of his folks’ store/home while the adults in his home community of the Free City of Danzig, and proceeds to only age chronologically and mentally from there. Strolling the roads of Danzig, Oskar continuously pounds a toy tin drum he was given on his third birthday, and soon discovers he has been given the gift of an exceptionally loud and high-pitched shriek that can shatter glass. As time marches on, Oskar marches to his own drumbeat (literally), and — in one inspired scene — disrupts a rally for the Nazi Party by hiding underneath the fairground platform and drumming away until the band breaks out with the wrong music.

Time continues to go by, and two of Oskar’s parental figures pass on. Later in life, Oskar (bear in mind: he’s still played by eleven-year-old Bennett, who is seen as a three-year-old with the aura of a teenager, if that makes more sense than anything else I’ve jotted down in this piece so far) falls in love with a fifteen-year-old housekeeper/shopkeeper (Katharina Thalbach) his father hires — which leads to a moment in film that caused much controversy in the day (and might still in some circles) as he begins to explore his sexuality. Of course, Oskar isn’t the only one changing (despite his best attempts not to): the rise of Hitler causes a number of unpleasant alterations in little ol’ Danzig, leading to an occupation by Soviet forces (you know, that part of history most Americans didn’t bother learning?).

Also appearing in this masterpiece are Charles Aznavour (as the only Jew is Danzig, apparently), Fritz Hakl (as a little person who first warns Oskar of the Nazis, but who is later seen as an entertainer for German officers), and Otto Sander (of Wings of Desire fame, as a trumpeter), with Tina Engel and Berta Drews both portraying Oskar’s grandmother (the latter actress playing the elder version of the character).

The winner of both an Academy Award in the States as well as a Palme d’Or at Cannes, The Tin Drum is a marvelous cinematic achievement which weaves the very best elements of German Expressionistic Cinema with the likes of Luis Buñuel (which is hardly surprising, seeing that one of the writers of the screenplay was Jean-Claude Carrière, who collaborated with Buñuel on several projects). But it’s Bennett’s casting that perhaps make the film stand out even more: it isn’t often an eleven-year-old can hold down an entire film on his own (not without a talking dog or CGI companions, at least), but to have one play the same part from birth and into his twenties is pure genius.

And now, having at long last seen this film (which I had only ever heard about before — along with the controversy the film’s saucier scenes between our manipulative protagonist and his sexual conquests) that I have been able to develop a theory as to what the filmmakers responsible for Burial Ground – The Nights of Terror were up to: they were obviously trying to (jokingly?) emulate Bennett’s performance — replete with the slight Oedipal undertones The Tin Drum possessed, but perversely malformed into something wholly other.

I suppose it would help you all if you were to see both films in question. Or if I were to find the right treatment for whatever mental condition it is I suffer from; as far as I’m aware, no one else has been crazy enough to compare David Bennett in The Tin Drum to Peter Bark in Burial Ground. But then, maybe I’m the only one to make the connection. Or, as the crazy, bearded professor at the beginning of the aforementioned horror film proudly exclaims: “Im the only one who knows the secret!” Ha-ha — take that, my fellow bad movie lovers!

Really, I don’t know why I’m comparing these movies to each other.

One-upping their previous 2004 issue of the original theatrical cut of The Tin Drum, The Criterion Collection now gives us the Director’s Cut of this acclaimed, thought-provoking classic in glorious High-Definition on Blu-ray and DVD. Boasting 21 minutes of additional footage, this edit of the movie is presented with a strong color palette throughout along with a fine amount of detail and contrast. Noise is occasionally noticeable (and, in one instant, very noticeable), but rarely distracts from one’s enjoyment of the film. Audio-wise, this Director’s Cut offers up a German DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack that was approved by director Schlöndorff for 1979 70mm re-releases of the original cut, and later re-edited to include the new material from the Director’s Cut. Removable English subtitles are included.

Special features for this release begin with a new 68-minute-long interview with Volker Schlöndorff (in English) in which the filmmaker discusses the making of the film and his experiences with select cast and crew. Next up is another 2012-made interview — this one featuring (non-bad) film scholar Timothy Corrigan, who analyzes the film in a much more effectively (read: he’s more-than-likely never sat through Burial Ground) manner than I did. Four archive interviews from French television (circa 1979) are also included, as is a German-language trailer for the film and the famous Platform scene from the film, which is accompanied by The Tin Drum‘s own author, Günter Gross, who is heard reading the same scene from his book in his native language.

Just so we’re clear here: this release of The Tin Drum only features the Director’s Cut of the film. Should you choose to view the original theatrical version, I suggest picking up the 2004 DVD from Criterion. To multiregional Blu-ray player owners or readers in Europe: Arrow Video has a Region B release from 2012 that includes both cuts. Oh, and if you’re looking for a copy of Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror, I would suggest you seek some professional help. I can only recommend that to cinemasochists.

The Tin Cup, on the other hand — particularly this Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection — comes highly recommended to you “normal” lovers of fine (read: arty and foreign-y) film.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.