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TIN DRUM, THE(DIE BLECHTROMMEL) (director/writer: Volker Schlondorff; screenwriters: from the novel by Gunter Grass/Jean-Claude Carriere/Frank Seitz; cinematographer: Igor Luther; editor: Suzanne Baron; music: Maurice Jarre; cast: David Bennent (Oskar Matzerath), Mario Adorf (Alfred Matzerath), Angela Winkler (Agnes Matzerath), Daniel Olbrychski (Jan Bronski), Katharina Thalbach (Maria), Charles Aznavour (Sigismund Markus), Tina Engel (Anna Koljaiczek), Berta Drews (Grandmother Anna), Fritz Halk (Bebra), Maria Oliveri (Roswitha); Runtime: 142; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Frank Seitz; Criterion Collection; 1979-West Germany/France/USA-in German with English subtitles)
“The literal adaptation doesn’t transfer that well to film.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An allegory on the rise and fall of Nazism as seen through the eyes of a child. It’s based on the acclaimed 1959 epic novel by Gunter Grass. Director Volker Schlondorff (“The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum”/”Germany in Autumn”/”Swann in Love”) pays respect to the novel by being faithful to it, but the literal adaptation doesn’t transfer that well to film. It’s adapted to the screen by Jean-Claude Carriere, Frank Seitz and the director.

The film is narrated by Oskar(David Bennent, age 12), who has a strange story to tell about his growth being stunted in 1927 at age 3 in protest to the adults and their hypocritical follies.

Oskar chronicles his family’s strange history. He tells of his peasant Kashubian (an ethnic group, dwelling mostly in north-central Poland, who were never Polish or German enough for either ethnic group) potato farmer maternal grandmother (Tina Engel)and how she met his grandfather when he was fleeing from the police across a field where she was picking potatoes, and she hid him under her skirt. Granny gave birth to Oskar’s mom, but granny’s lover disappeared after the police chased him and he dove in the water never to be seen again.

In Danzig, in East Prussia (ruled a Polish city, by treaty after WWI, but one the Nazis wanted for Germany again), Oskar’s mother Agnes (Angela Winkler) was in love with two men, the German Alfred Matzerath (Mario Adorf) and her cousin, the Polish post office worker Jan Bronski (Daniel Olbrychski). Oskar’s biological father was Jan, but Alfred was nevertheless recognized as the father of record since he married Agnes.

Reluctant to be born, Oskar is appeased with the promise of a tin drum on his third birthday and decides to come out of the womb. When Oskar reached 3, he received his promised drum. One night after sitting under the table and watching his promiscuousmom play footsies with her boarder lover Jan under the table, he jumps off the cellar stairs and wills himself to stop growing. For the rest of the film he walks around having tantrums, playing his drum to tune out things he refuses to hear and showing off he has the ability to scream in a piercing high-pitch voice that can shatter glass.

Oskar becomes the conscience of an unconcerned Danzig, as the Nazi come to power and reason is abandoned as the Nazis persecute both the Jews (like the kindly Jewish toy-shop owner Sigismund Markus-Charles Aznavour) and Poles. Too bad Oskar turns out to be such a little shit, who is perverse, manipulative and selfish, as he becomes an unsympathetic character while in contrast his tin drum symbolically evokes a sense of childish innocence. Little Oskar learns to survive by role playing, hiding any sense of responsibility for his actions by acting as a child, selfishly looking out for only number one and joining a midget band to entertain the Nazi troops.

The performance by David Bennent is mesmerizing and unforgettable, but unfortunately most of the complexity of the satirical novel gets lost in its grotesque visuals and that the look at the Nazi evil is not that involving because it’s viewed through the eyes of the child. While the novel had an undeniable raw power as an unswerving condemnation of apathy, the film can only make some tin sounds to that effect.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”