In spite of the critical success of Günter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum, the first volume of The Danzig Trilogy, after its publication in 1959, for many years it was considered a daunting if not impossible project to adapt to the screen. There was the great span of time it covered, the proper tone required to handle its fantastic events, as well as the salacious nature of some of the content. But even more problematical was the novel’s central character Oskar Matzerath, a child who on his third birthday refuses to grow any further. He it seemed would have been impossible to cast. That director Volker Schlöndorff and his collaborating screen writer Jean-Claude Carrière were able to come up with a script that impressed Grass with its possibilities and then find a child actor small enough in stature, yet old enough to play Oskar is among the most remarkable things about this most remarkable film.
Originally released in 1979, the film which won both the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film was a shortened version of Schlöndorff’s initial cut which ran well over the producer’s requirement that it run no more than two and a quarter hours. With the film’s great success, Schlöndorff wanted to restore the cuts, but producers were adamant that it would be a mistake to tamper with a winner. When in 2009 Schlöndorff was made aware that the original film negative which was being stored in Berlin was about to be destroyed, he agreed to take charge of it and convinced the powers that be to restore the cuts, adding about 30 minutes to the film’s running time. This restored director approved high-definition digital transfer of the complete version with a newly translated English subtitles is the centerpiece of the new two disc set in the Criterion Collection.
Although the film begins with a scene in which Oskar’s grandmother squatting in a potato field hides a man running from a pair of decidedly Keystone-type Kops under her skirts, the man who is to become Oskar’s grandfather, most of the narrative takes place after Oskar’s birth, the period after WWI and the rise of the Nazis in what was then the free city of Danzig, now the Polish city of Gdansk. While the novel carries through to 1959, the film ends in 1945 with the Russian invasion of the city and the removal of much of the populace. Of the terms used to characterize the film, absurdist and surreal are the most apt. Schlöndorff, talking about Grass’s reaction to their initial screenplay, says that he found it too logical. It needed to emphasize the fantastic. In the end it had to be treated as dark or black comedy, almost slapstick.
Oskar’s refusal to grow up, when on his third birthday he receives what is to become his ubiquitous tin drum, is seen as a rejection of the responsibilities that come with adulthood. He wants a darker version of a Peter Pan-like freedom to do as he pleases. Not only does he want to march to his own drum, he wants everyone else to march to it as well. When he discovers that his high pitched screams can shatter glass, he learns that he can manage the adults and get them to do what he wants, without any responsibility for his behavior. On the other hand, given the childish often immoral behavior of the adults around him, his rejection makes sense. His mother, father and uncle are engaged in a love triangle. They do little to keep their sexual peccadilloes quiet. The German neighbors and townsfolk fall prey to the Nazi pomp and propaganda. If this is what it is like to be an adult, why not remain a child?
Punctuating Oskar’s narrative of some of the major historical events of first half of the last century are a series of memorable set pieces, unforgettable moments and images that will bury themselves deep in the consciousness: Oskar’s birth as we emerge with him out of his mother’s womb almost fully grown, the horse’s head filled with eels pulled out of the ocean by a fisherman as the family walks the beach, the Nazi rally that turns into a waltz fest, the Nazi attack on the nuns walking on the beach. Not to mention the troublesome sexuality of the scene in the bath house between Oskar and Maria the young girl who is destined to become his stepmother—a scene, along with one or two others that was to create some trouble for the film with censors in Canada and Oklahoma.
The Tin Drum is a challenging film that defies easy interpretation. It depicts a world in chaos, a world where traditional values have lost their meaning, and if there are any new ones they aren’t working. It is that world where that famous beast has already slouched toward Bethlehem and been born. Schlödorff presents an insane vision of that insane world, a nightmarish vision that is shocking in its visceral accuracy.
Besides the trailer, this new Criterion Collection set includes an illuminating hour-long interview with Schlöndorff filmed in 2012, a recording of Grass reading the passage from the novel describing Oskar’s disruption of the Nazi rally illustrated by the scene in the film, and a number of early French television interviews with Schlödorff, Carrière and a few of the actors, most notably David Bennent who plays Oskar. The accompanying booklet has an essay, “Bang the Drum Loudly,” by critic Geoffrey Macnab and some comments from Grass about the adaptation. It does not include the documentary Banned in Oklahoma which was included as bonus material in Criterion’s 2004 release.