Jan. 27, 2011

The Tin Drum (1979)
Grade: 89/100

Director: Volker Schlöndorff
Stars: David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler

What it's about. An acclaimed West German film based on the famous German language novel of the same name by Günter Grass. Set in Danzig circa 1925 to 1945. Danzig was an independent city-state with opposing Pole and German sympathies, later occupied by Germany throughout World War II.

The Tin Drum stars David Bennent as Oskar, a malcontent toddler perpetually three years old. Oskar is the son of brunette hottie Agnes (Angela Winkler). Agnes is married to pro-German Alfred (Mario Adorf), although all suspect that Oskar is the biological son of pro-Poland Jan (Daniel Olbrychski). Jan and Alfred remain friends despite their disagreement over the political future of Danzig.

The years pass, and while Oskar remains physically three years old, Danzig becomes dominated by Nazi-aligned fascists. Agnes dies following a nervous breakdown prompted by an unwanted pregnancy. The Nazis invade, and Jan dies defending the city post office, a locally famous last stand.

Agnes' place in Oskar's family is effectively taken by Maria (Katharina Thalbach), a sexually aware teenager recruited by Oskar's no-nonsense grandmother Anna (Berta Drews). Maria becomes pregnant and gives birth to Kurt, whose parentage is unknown since Maria has had sex with both Alfred and Oskar. Thus, Kurt is possibly Oskar's son, possibly his half-brother, and possibly no genetic relation at all.

Oskar has a falling out with Maria and joins the circus of dwarf Bebra (Fritz Hakl), which travels to France under Nazi military management. The apolitical Oskar falls in love with Bebra's dwarf intimate Roswitha (Mariella Oliveri), but tragedy ensues, and Oskar returns to Danzig, just in time for the city to fall to Soviet forces.

How others will see it. Like the novel it is based on, The Tin Drum is highly controversial. Not for its politics, however, which are predictably anti-Nazi and to a lesser degree anti-Soviet (Russian troops rape a woman and gun down Oskar's legal father). Oskar, played by then 11-year-old Bennent, has two non-nude sex scenes with Maria, whose character (but not the actress) is underage. Those scenes have led to accusations of child pornography, mostly from authorities with a politically-motivated axe to grind.

Generally, though, The Tin Drum was critically acclaimed. It won the Golden Palm at Cannes, and picked up an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film. Today, the imdb.com user ratings are very high at 7.7 out of 10, although a gender gap exists among the over-45 crowd, where men see it as 8.0 and women as 6.8.

How I felt about it. The source novel is a German-language classic, and probably responsible for the eventual Nobel Prize for Literature won by author Grass. Director Schlöndorff does an admirable job, but the real talent here is writer Jean-Claude Carriére, best known for his work with semi-surrealist director Luis Buñuel. Other quality films from scripts by Carriére include The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Danton (1983), and Valmont (1989).

The first questions posed by The Tin Drum are what the title symbol and Oskar himself represent. Oskar is a child. He knows his mother, kindly Jewish toy store owner Marcus (Charles Aznavour), mentor Bebra, and first crush Maria. But he is too young to form reasoned political convictions of his own. He disrupts a Nazi rally, satirizes a religious statue, and participates in the legendary Danzig post office siege, but does these things in a Forrest Gump manner, unaware of the significance of actions and events except the effect they have on his friends and family.

But Oskar is emotionally troubled, and his security blanket tin drum expresses his angst. His turmoil, and that of his family, reflect the woes of Danzig as it is rocked by Polish, German, and Russian hegemony. Oskar may not know what is going on, but really, who does, except for Marcus, who understands the political undercurrents yet is powerless to adapt to them. Oskar's survival is due to his status as a disturbed child: nobody holds him accountable for anything, no matter what disaster ensues.

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