[This is my first, much-belated entry in the Blind Spot Series hosted by Ryan of The Matinee.]
There once was a drummer. His name was Oskar. He lost his poor mama, who had eaten too much fish. There once was a gullible people who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really the gas man!
Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (1979) plays like a lost fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. It has the same Teutonic roughness, the same cavalcade of sneering villains and magic tokens. In the spirit of “Hansel and Gretel” or “Little Red Riding Hood,” it’s about a beleaguered child in a merciless world. But instead of stumbling along, sprinkling bread crumbs in the forest, Oskar Matzerath bends the world to his will. Uncannily aware of adult hypocrisy, he throws himself down a flight of stairs on his third birthday, vowing never to grow again. From then on, he brandishes his childhood as a weapon.
This is Schlöndorff’s poison pen letter to the previous generation, a “fuck you” to the parents who carried out the Holocaust and destroyed Germany. As the Nazis rise and consume Danzig, Oskar stridently beats his drum. As his mother runs secretly between the two men who may be his biological father, Oskar gazes on in silent judgment. To him, adulthood is a grotesque farce where Nazi rallies degenerate into rain-soaked waltzing, where marital strife leads his mother to gorge on eels. Yeah, Oskar’s a “bad seed”—calculating from the second he leaves the womb, indirectly killing both of his potential fathers—but the film never blames him. He’s been born into a bad nation.
The key here is David Bennent, the Swiss 12-year-old who plays Oskar across two decades of German/Polish history. Not for a second does he hold back to garner audience sympathies. Instead, he’s always pushing forward, growing louder and more abrasive, shrieking and drumming to express his contempt. The same goes for Bennent’s voiceover narration: shrill, conspiratorial, suffused with a childish solipsism but not a shred of innocence. He gives one of the most haunting child performances I’ve ever seen, and it sets the tone for the film’s vision of Nazi-era Danzig as a demented storybook.
Here, corruption and ethical compromise are visually mapped across staid furnishings, like a piano adorned with a radio and a picture of Hitler. The grays and browns of bourgeois life dominate the film’s palette, but reds puncture through that veneer in the form of dresses, fish blood, playing cards, swastika bands, and of course the pattern on that drum. Like Oskar’s glass-shattering screams, these reds are pain and rebellion made physical, breaching the Matzerath family’s complacent surface—a surface that’s reduced to nothing but screams, blood, and rubble by the end of the film.
So this is Schlöndorff’s revenge on those who preceded him: an angry movie, weird to the bone and pulsing with dark magic, so sexually frank that it was briefly banned in Oklahoma. And furthermore, a lush, imposing period epic that navigates political upheaval and warfare with the eyes of a mad child. But what better way to document such an impossibly horrible part of history? Theodor Adorno said that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” The Tin Drum is a barbaric movie.