Tag Archives: new german cinema

The Sorrows of Young Oskar

[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.

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Uphill Battle

We love stories about ambition. About men (always men) who dream and build the impossible. The messianic wonder of Lawrence of Arabia; the phallic hugeness of the Empire State Building or the Washington Monument; the anything-for-spectacle expedition of King Kong; even the improbable triumph of the Founding Fathers who stitched a new nation together out of some squabbling British colonies. In that same tradition, Werner Herzog forged the delirious man vs. nature fable Fitzcarraldo (1982).

Here, the man with the plan is industrialist Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, called Fitzcarraldo by the Peruvians. He’s played by Herzog’s “best fiend” Klaus Kinski, whose intense blue eyes and shock of blond hair contrast jarringly with the Amazon rainforest. Obsessed with the opera—especially turn-of-the-century tenor Enrico Caruso—he pledges to build an opera house in the city of Iquitos. This unfeasible dream and its financial burden lead him to an untapped grove of rubber trees, accessible only after crossing a steep strip of land with a steamship. It’s a brazenly stupid act, but he does it, and he carries the audience with him.

Like the earlier Herzog/Kinski collaboration Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo is defined by its eccentricity. Herzog maps incongruous aural textures onto one another, layering the dazed Popol Vuh score, the dubbed-in German, the buzz of the rainforest, some Caruso arias, and Kinski’s plaintive yowls. Broadly speaking, too, it’s about incongruity. Through sheer force of will, Fitzcarraldo brings his European clothes, machinery, and music into hostile territory where they do not belong. His faith in opera blinkers him, leading him into a morass of hubris and monomania. For Herzog, manifest destiny is a symptom of mental illness.

In the national myths I mentioned earlier (Lawrence, skyscrapers, Kong, George Washington), we’re absolved of moral responsibility for the sake of adventure. In stark opposition, Fitzcarraldo’s sociopathic self-obsession contaminates all of the film’s thrills and spills. His naked contempt renders the story’s underlying mechanics visible: how racism and genocide are yoked to imperialism; how a lone, self-aggrandizing white man rides on the backs (and land) of non-white laborers. How the whole film, like the actions of missionaries and conquistadors everywhere, is premised on a self-destructive delusion.

And that delusion is suffocating. Even with Amazonian aerial shots galore, Fitzcarraldo feels claustrophobic, since we’re always rooted in its title character’s headspace. During the film’s centerpiece sequence, Herzog shoots the aggregation of pulleys dragging the ship, the army of native “bare-asses” recruited to work them, and the ship’s incremental motion with a mix of fetish and fascination. It’s painful to watch, because it twists traditional audience response: do you recoil or marvel? Does the grandeur justify the futility?

Based loosely on a true story, Fitzcarraldo is infamous for its troubled production. Even if original stars Jason Robards and Mick Jagger hadn’t left mid-production, Herzog still had the self-assigned, Herculean chore of pulling a steamship over a hill, sans models or visual effects. But as he said during an investors’ meeting when the project was in danger of collapse, “If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams, and I don’t want to live like that.” In this respect, then, it’s also an autobiographical meta-narrative about the audacity of filmmaking—of squandering millions to physically reproduce nonexistent worlds.

Unlike so many artists, Herzog doesn’t romanticize the act of creation, but rather recognizes its selfishness. Throughout his work, it feels like a fundamental, akin to breathing. He films violently, even destructively. (Just look at Les Blank’s making-of documentary Burden of Dreams, or his hellish relationship with Kinski.) The ethos of Fitzcarraldo reminds me of a quote from William Faulkner: “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” For both men, writing or building or filmmaking are anything but benign; they flow from dark, atavistic drives. Werner Herzog would not hesitate to rob his mother.

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