THE TIN DRUM — Arrow Academy Dual Format Edition / Review
‘… world history seen and experienced from beneath: gigantic, spectacular pictures held together by the tiny Oskar.’
It is suggested that the Oberhausen Manifesto, a declaration made by young German filmmakers at the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen on 28 February 1962, was the impetus for the New German Cinema movement that rose to prominence between the late 1960s and the 1980s. Among the group that would eventually produce work within that period and would go on to receive international acclaim were Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff and Wim Wenders.
The Tin Drum (1979) is certainly regarded as Volker Schlöndorff’s greatest critical and commercial achievement. It is a key film in the New German Cinema, both epitomising a cinema that Stephen Brockmann describes as showing “the personal implications of politics”  and underling the importance and success, with acclaim for The Tin Drum in the form of the Palme d’Or and an Oscar, of a national cinema to West German audiences.
Günter Grass’s 1959 novel has been seen as a key text within Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the process through which modern Germany has attempted to learn to live with its past in relation to Hitler’s rise to power and the Nazi co-option of cultural, religious and historical institutions. With Grass this was, at the time, a specific criticism and analysis of how Germany would legitimise itself again in its post-war rebuilding of society and politics in the 1950s and 1960s under the Christian Democratic Union government of Konrad Adenauer. As Peter O. Amds noted: “Grass saw in the CDU government a continuation of the Nazi past…[and] the post-war period was neo-Biedermeier, a restorative time in which people turned away from politics and comforted themselves with materialism and prosperity.”  The Tin Drum was not only Grass’s reminder to Germans that they had to reconcile themselves with their Nazi past but that in order to do so they needed to examine democracy in the form of the CDU’s policies.
A landmark in postwar German literature, The Tin Drum is a magical-realist, picaresque novel that uses political satire to confront German society of the 1960s with the legacies of its past. Told over three books, the central character is Oskar Matzerath, a child of dubious parentage, with two presumptive fathers in Alfred Matzerath and Jan Bronski, born to Agnes Matzerath in the Free City of Danzig in 1924.
At the age of three he refuses to grow up, after observing and then rejecting the antagonism within his petit bourgeois Polish-German family, and he throws himself down the cellar stairs in order to arrest his physical maturation. On his third birthday he receives the gift of a red and white tin drum, a symbolic object that stays with him throughout the story, and also discovers that his piercing cry can shatter glass.
“Here, all of a sudden he speaks into the camera. The fact that he is there reflecting on himself on screen provides the whole perspective to the story he is telling.”
Through his narration, and his eyes as a child-adult, we witness the Third Reich’s ascendancy and its attempt to seize the strategically important city of Danzig. Political lines are drawn within Oskar’s family and Alfred, a German, sides with the Nazis while Jan, a Danzig Pole, remains loyal to his homeland. Oskar then tells of the suicide of Sigismund Markus, a Jewish toy shop owner, during the Kristallnacht ransacking of synagogues and Jewish businesses in 1938 and then of the defence of the Polish Post Office, one of the first skirmishes in the Second World War. There Jan is caught up in the battle for the building with his fellow Polish citizens holding off against attacks by the SS and local SA units.
Oskar’s mother Agnes, who maintained an affair with Jan during her marriage to Alfred, dies and Alfred marries Maria, a young girl brought to Danzig by Oskar’s grandmother to work in Alfred’s grocery store. Both he and Oskar have a sexual relationship with her, then she marries Alfred and becomes pregnant, giving birth to potentially what could be Oskar’s son or half-brother, Kurt. Oskar leaves and joins Bebra’s circus troupe of dwarfs who have been officially co-opted by the Nazis to entertain the troops on the front line at Normandy. He begins an affair with Bebra’s mistress, Roswitha, but this is short lived when she is killed during the Allies advance into France.
In 1944, when Oskar returns to Danzig, he has to hide with his family as the Russians arrive and capture the city. His ‘father’ Alfred is shot by invading troops when he goes into seizure after swallowing his Nazi Party lapel pin to protect himself and avoid being revealed as a Nazi. At Alfred’s funeral, Oskar decides to stop drumming and start growing again and throws his drum into the grave. After Kurt hits Oskar on the head with a stone, he starts to grow again and the family abandon Danzig.
At this point there is a parting of the ways between Grass’s book and Schlöndorff’s film adaptation. The third section of the book confirms that Oskar is narrating the story from the confines of an asylum, thus leaving the reader to question the veracity of the incidents related to them. Oskar is therefore an unreliable narrator in the novel but Schlöndorf chooses to end the film adaptation with the incidents of the second section of the novel and cinema audiences were left unaware of the actual source and circumstance of Oskar’s narrative. In fact, in the original theatrical version released in 1979, Oskar’s narration is ambiguously presented off screen, switching between the third person and the first.
In the 2010 director’s cut, Schlöndorff restores a sequence, adding to one of the film’s flights of fancy by recreating an orgy with Rasputin while Oskar’s teacher Gertrude and mother Agnes read about his sexual exploits. In this scene we see Oskar look directly at the audience, into the camera, while continuing his familiar narration that threads throughout the film. Schlöndorff commented on this reclamation of the narrative in Sight and Sound: “Here, all of a sudden he speaks into the camera. The fact that he is there reflecting on himself on screen provides the whole perspective to the story he is telling.” 
“This is Grass’s own childhood… that’s what he grew up in and that’s how he ended up wanting to partake in the war.”
This is ironic given that the director’s cut of The Tin Drum arrived in the aftermath of Grass’s revelation, in his 2006 memoir Peeling the Onion, that at the age of 17 he was a member of the Waffen-SS, a Nazi fighting unit denounced at the Nuremberg trials. He had never made a secret of the fact that he was involved in the Hitler Youth movement and, at 16, had volunteered for duty on submarines but he had kept private his role in the Waffen-SS and only guiltily admitted the truth just as the memoir went to publication.
Schlöndorff, in the Sight and Sound article, was rather pragmatic and saw this confession as yet another layer to the film: “He has been his own exorcist, like a lot of artists, through this trilogy and especially in this character of Oskar who is clearly a little schizophrenic. This is Grass’s own childhood… that’s what he grew up in and that’s how he ended up wanting to partake in the war.”  In an odd twist the unreliability of Oskar as narrator is the role that many commentators have suggested that Grass must finally accept as his own.
Schlöndorff’s film of The Tin Drum opens with Oskar (the amazing David Bennent) narrating the story of his conception and birth and it begins with his grandparents. An image of his peasant grandmother Anna (the younger version played by Tina Engel), huddled over a fire in the middle of a field having picked potatoes as she watches tiny figures on the horizon, is one of many that places figures into epic landscapes. It is a motif that Schlöndorff uses repeatedly in the film; the impressive crane shot of Bebra, the circus dwarf, waving farewell to Oskar; the Matzerath family on the beach; the tiny figures of Bebra and his troupe on the Normandy bunkers; and a closing shot of a similar peasant figure tending a fire as Oskar leaves Danzig by train at the end of the film, are some examples that come to mind.
Much of the opening is also shot on a Askania silent camera, giving the footage an over-cranked, sped up silent film and newsreel aesthetic as Oskar’s future grandfather Joseph, an army deserter, seeks shelter under Anna’s skirts from military police. It is later supplemented by several uses of the classic iris in/out motif that allude to the passing of time in silent cinema narrative as Kashubian peasant life makes way for city life in Danzig. This is where we see Anna (the older version now played by Berta Drews) and her daughter Agnes (a psychologically unsettling performance from Angela Winkler) selling geese and the development of the love triangle between Agnes, Alfred (Mario Adorf) and Jan (Daniel Olbrychski).
There are also numerous film references that Schlöndorff uses, including the silent comedy introduction of grandfather Joseph, the mimicking and satirising of Riefenstahl’s chronicle of the Nuremberg Rally, Triumph of the Will (1934) and Oskar’s schoolteacher emulating the shot of the nurse’s broken glasses and open mouthed scream in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) among them. As Hans-Bernhard Moeller and George Lellis note Schlöndorff finds an equivalent to Grass’s manipulation of language, including the puns, allusions, metaphors and use of stream of consciousness in the book, and “Schlöndorff’s use of leitmotifs demonstrates how the film maker can adhere closely to his literary model” by employing a deft accumulation of visual symbols and objects within the film.
The most permanent symbol is that of the red and white tin drum (the colours of the Polish flag), always present as soon as Oskar decides that he will not be part of the sinful adult world. As a symbol it bridges the child/man’s obsessions, the way his identification switches from mother Agnes, and after her death, to his two ‘fathers’. It has a transformative power that attempts to halt the affair between Agnes and Jan and heralds the deaths of Jan, in the Post Office attack, and then Alfred, when the Russians arrive in Danzig. In one scene, during the Post Office attack, the drum is perched on a cupboard, blazing with spectral light and causes the death of Jan’s comrade and Jan’s own eventual capture and execution.
Incidentally, grandfather Joseph’s shelter under Anna’s skirts is another visual symbol that is repeated throughout the film. It suggests both a desire on the part of the child, particularly male, to return to the womb, to cease to be part of the adult world and of the child view of the world. Oskar’s point of view is one of eternal voyeurism from beneath, looking up at the adult world around him, trying to fathom out the contradictions between his Polish and German relatives and the original Kashubian stock from which he is descended.
We initially see Oskar in the womb, reluctant to emerge into the world. Like his grandfather, he later seeks shelter under his grandmother’s skirts during a party at home and at the wake for his recently buried mother; again in his encounter with Maria (Katherina Thalbach) at the beach hut which sees his magnetic attraction to the young woman’s naked body, his head plunging straight for her vagina. Later, this underworld exploration continues in Maria’s bed when Oskar seduces her under the bedclothes with fizzing sherbert licked out of her navel.
And it is worth noting the prevalent use of groups of three in many of Schlöndorff’s compositions. Naturally, he frames Alfred, Jan and Agnes together but this often switches to various combinations featuring Oskar too where the pattern of the love triangle is later repeated in the three figures of Bebra, Roswitha and Oskar and in the three way affair between Alfred, Maria and Oskar. This is perhaps Schlöndorff’s visualisation of the eternal procession of the trinity, even of ‘faith’, ‘hope’ and ‘charity’. It also underlines the triangular nature of the three ethnic groups in the film — the Germans, the Poles and the Kashubians — and what Moeller and Lellis see as “the dramatic shifts that have occurred in how the two peoples (the Germans and the Poles) have regarded one another” throughout history and where, in the film, each of the three ethnicities must chose which side they are eventually going to be on as the rise of Nazism permeates their society. 
As well as this visual symmetry between the characters, we also have Oskar’s role as observer and interpreter of the adult world. Schlöndorff has Oskar narrate much of the film, sometimes switching between first and third person, but there are also ways in which the director tracks Oskar in and out of frames in his role as observer. Many scenes in which Oskar is watching the unfolding events begin with his view point, the audience seeing directly what he sees, but often Schlöndorff will then position Oskar at the edge of the frame and then slowly pull back or move forward. The view point switches from Oskar to the viewer.
The audience takes over from Oskar as the observer and watches as Nazism feeds off what Stephen Parker describes as “the irrational impulses and destructive tendencies born of petty frustrations, greed and jealousies” in the adults around his central figure, adults naively manipulated by the monstrous reality distorting around them.  It is Oskar’s revulsion at this state of affairs which prompts his refusal to grow, the character with his red and white tin drum becoming the film’s symbolic political rebel, a critique of petit bourgeois German nature and a mirror to the alienating effects on their ethnic friends and neighbours.
“Our kind must never sit in the audience. Our kind must perform and run the show, or the others will run us. The others are coming. They will occupy the fairgrounds, they will stage torchlight parades, build rostrums, fill the rostrums, and from those rostrums preach our destruction.”
Oskar is himself subject to this alienating process early on in the film. After he discovers his extraordinary ability to shatter glass, his is virtually crowned king for the day by the gang of local children he plays with and for a time he is the drummer boy that they follow. Schlöndorff underlines this by cutting from the rag tag gang and their leader to a Hitler Youth band marching down the street under attack from neighbours who see them only as an inconsequential irritant. Later, as a signal of the imminent reversal of this situation, when Danzig gradually falls under the shadow of the Third Reich, the gang of children turn on Oskar and he becomes an outsider, someone different to them and only fit for abuse.
When Oskar meets Bebra in the circus, his role of distanced observer is questioned and Bebra issues a call to arms: “Our kind must never sit in the audience. Our kind must perform and run the show, or the others will run us. The others are coming. They will occupy the fairgrounds, they will stage torchlight parades, build rostrums, fill the rostrums, and from those rostrums preach our destruction.” A reflection of the imagery of the street gang and their drummer boy leader, and the idea of performance as defence, can be found in later sequences when Bebra marches his troupe and Oskar together over the Normandy beaches or has them entertain the Nazis in a French nightclub. Indeed, Oskar and Bebra share the creative/destructive impulses of those around them: Bebra makes glass sing, Oskar shatters it.
Oskar is often seen looking underneath or into space as if attempting to uncover a hidden truth or gain greater knowledge. As well as attempting to hide under his grandmother’s skirts, he sits under tables to witness adultery or disrupts and subverts the Triumph of the Will style Nazi rally from under a rostrum. Schlöndorff’s camera again emphasises the child viewpoint, angled low and looking up into the faces of adults or at Oskar’s head height so that taller adults are simply represented in cut off form, sometimes headless in the frame. As ever, his point of view switches with alarming regularity.
At the start of the film, during the sequence in which he is born, rendered to great Gothic effect as Oscar is seen glaring malevolently from within Agnes’s womb on a storm lashed night, we see birth from his perspective, with tilted angles and the faces of his two ‘fathers’ presented upside down. Later, his deliberate fall down the cellar steps is seen from multiple views, our view of him falling, his view of the cellar floor and then his view looking up from the floor as his mother and ‘fathers’ come to investigate. As Schlöndorff himself noted in Die Blechtrommel: Tagebuch einer Verfilmung: “I’m trying to imagine a film that… could become a very German fresco, world history seen and experienced from beneath: gigantic, spectacular pictures held together by the tiny Oskar.” 
Oskar is also the linchpin around which much of the more baroque imagery of the film rotates. He is a trickster figure, the fairy tale picaro, a grotesque Tom Thumb who explores the Bakhtian carnival of life replete with its sexual degeneracy and gender chaos. The rituals of eating and the symbols of sex are at the heart of the film. This probably reaches its apotheosis in the sequence where Alfred, Jan, Agnes and Oskar are walking along the beach and a local fisherman, using a horse’s head as bait, catches eels that he then offers to Alfred. The sight of the eels emerging from the head is one of the film’s most visceral moments, perhaps symbolic of the unsavoury ideology lurking in this society, and Agnes’s sickened reaction tips her over into an obsessive madness that begins in an argument with Alfred.
Her hysteria and refusal to eat the eels Alfred has cooked is only calmed by Jan’s sexual ministrations but it ultimately leads to Agnes’s gorging on eels and fish and a suicide after the trauma of an unwanted pregnancy. Peter O. Amds sees this as “a perfect blend of those images that Bakhtin discusses under his ‘banquet imagery’… eating, drinking, swallowing, wide-open physical orifices, primarily the mouth and the vagina in childbirth.” The film is littered with such images, from Oskar’s birth; his own penchant for screaming and shattering glass; the various community feasts and dinners; Agnes’s fish-eating insanity, the rather phallic looking eels; and grocer Greff’s soliloquy to the “tumescent, luxuriant flesh” of the potato.
The Tin Drum offers us a Fellini-esque exploration of the rise of Nazism where the central character is ambivalent, destructive, grotesque and immoral and yet, as Naomi Ritter points out, “Oskar, the blue eyed dwarf, is both the perfect Aryan and the monster eliminated by the Nazis.”  His monstrosity is tempered by humanism, one in stark contrast to the lives within the economic and social structures now fertile enough for Nazism to flourish.
It boasts an extraordinary performance from twelve year old David Bennent, whose magnetic eyes threaten to hypnotise the viewer from his first appearance in Schlöndorff’s cinematic amalgam of the epic, the absurd and the intimate. A compelling, often blackly funny, adaptation of what was considered an unfilmable book, The Tin Drum’s themes about generational and ethnic conflict, of cultures shaped by external repressive forces, are part of a film that Stephen Brockmann sees as “intended to demolish the myth of an unblemished, guilt-free beginning to post-war German history.”  It’s not just post-war German history that we should be concerned with here, but that of post-war Western society itself and the nature of the forces that shape our future democratic consciousness.
 Stephen Brockmann, A Critical History of German Film, (Camden House, 2010)
 Peter O. Arnds, Representation, Subversion, and Eugenics in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, (Camden House, 2004)
 Geoffrey MacNab, ‘Little Voice’ in Sight and Sound, (Volume 21, Issue 12, December 2011)
 Hans-Bernhard Moeller and George Lellis, Volker Schlöndorff’s Cinema: Adaptation, Politics, and the “Movie-Appropriate”, (SIU Press, 2012)
 Stephen Parker, ‘At the Focus of World Politics: West and East Germany’ in Literature of Europe and America in the 1960s, eds. Spencer Pearce, Don Piper, (Manchester University Press, 1989)
 Volker Schlöndorff, Die Blechtrommel: Tagebuch einer Verfilmung, (Luchterhand,1979)
 Peter O. Arnds, Representation, Subversion, and Eugenics in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, (Camden House, 2004)
 Naomi Ritter, Art as Spectacle: Images of the Entertainer Since Romanticism, (University of Missouri Press, 1989)
 Stephen Brockmann, A Critical History of German Film, (Camden House, 2010)
About the transfer
The Tin Drum looks wonderful in Arrow Academy’s clean 1080p high definition transfer that retains the 1.66:1 screen ratio. Details of faces, clothes and objects is often gloriously rendered throughout the film and the contrast is robust, suitably inky and thick. The colour palette is captured extremely well, with reds popping out vibrantly among the browns, greens and blues and it certainly emphasises the superb, Expressionist cinematography from Igor Luther. It looks sumptuous. The lossless DTS Master HD 5.1 audio is crisp and clear, a great showcase for Maurice Jarre’s equally bizarre score. Anyone wanting to upgrade or purchase this for the first time shouldn’t be disappointed.
Blu-Ray Special Features
- Director’s cut (2:43:12)
This fully restored, 1080p high definition transfer of the film includes 22 minutes of additional scenes that Volker Schlöndorff returned to the film after a Berlin film lab called him to ask him what he wanted to do with the 180,000 feet of negative stored there. Sifting through the negative he decided to restore four scenes removed from the original cut for a Cannes Classics screening in 2010.
- Theatrical cut (2:21:59)
Available on the Blu-ray and available in standard definition on the DVD.
- Commentary with Volker Schlöndorff
Detailed and comprehensive audio track with the director that delves thoroughly into the making of the film and its rich tapestry of images and symbolism. He discusses the casting of David Bennent, the production itself, the abandoned sequel and some of the scenes he dropped from the film, including the now reinstated moment where Bebra and Oskar witness the murder of a group of nuns on the Normandy beaches. Well worth a listen.
- Interview with Volker Schlöndorff 2011 (24:13)
Schlöndorff talks in detail about the 2010 cut of the film and how it came about. He discusses the process and emotional impact of returning to the footage and bringing David Bennent and other actors back to loop the original dialogue for some of the restored sequences. You’ll learn about the United Artists two hour forty five minute version which they required to be cut to the contracted two and a quarter hour theatrical length. When contacted by the Berlin film lab, he went back to the screenplay and was able to source the missing scenes from the theatrical cut and return much of the footage to the film in what he saw as an essential act of underlining “the locus and focus” of the film.
DVD only Special Features
- Volker Schlöndorff on the making of The Tin Drum — Cannes 2001 (8:56)
Schlöndorff discusses the character of Oskar and the medical precedent for young children to stop growing if they suffer a trauma. He recalls that through a contact at Munich medical school he discovered young actor David Bennent, the son of Heinz Bennent (who plays Greff in the film), and whom he would cast as Oskar. He also reflects on the inspiration, for the colour schemes used in The Tin Drum, found in German painter Lindberg and how he incorporated a sense of realism into the film. Finally, much of the interview describes the approach taken by screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière in adapting the Günter Grass book.
Grass apparently described the first draft as “too Cartesian and too rational” and asked Schlondorff and Carrière to consider injecting more irrational moments into the script because he didn’t want the audience to believe “that history unfolds in a rational way.” Schlöndorff suggests the reason why so much of the book didn’t make it into the film and why the last third of the book isn’t included is because this process would have resulted in a five-hour long film version. Grass objected to the film concluding with the end of the war in 1945 as he felt it perpetuated the “myth of the zero hour” that suggested that German history literally started from scratch at the end of the war when in reality those that had fought in the war were now bound up within the creation of the Federal Republic.
- Volker Schlöndorff on the making of The Tin Drum — October 2001(16:22)
A further interview that covers Schlöndorff’s work with Jean-Claude Carrière on adapting the book for the film. Again, he notes that Carrière managed to capture many of the dramatic punchlines of the book and that he also produced a wealth of drawings during the process of scripting. The conversation shifts to Angela Winkler and her portrayal of Oskar’s rather strange mother and he also mentions the casting of Polish actors Daniel Olbrychski and Marek Walczewski; Heinz Bennent as the potato seller Greff; Mario Adorf as Alfred Matzerath and Charles Aznavour as the toy shop owner Markus.
The controversial beach hut encounter between a naked Oskar and Maria (which made the film the subject of a protracted ‘child obscenity’ case in Oklahoma that was eventually settled in 2001) is also briefly covered and Schlöndorff recalls how he had to convince Katharina Thalbach with a series of drawings to demonstrate to her how her modesty would be preserved on screen. The drawings were later instrumental to Schlöndorff’s winning of the obscenity trail 20 years later. He highlights the international crew of Italians, Greeks and French that worked on the film, also provides some background to Maurice Jarre’s score, to David Bennent’s drum-playing lessons and the visual effects used in the film. Finally, he discusses the attack on the Danzig Post Office and how it connects with Grass’s own research for the novel.
The original theatrical trailer.
Featuring brand new writing on the film by George Lellis and Hans-Bernhard Moeller, authors of Volker Schlöndorff’s Cinema: Adaptation, Politics and the “Movie-Appropriate”, as well as extracts from Volker Schlöndorff’s diary, writing by Jean Claude Carrière and Günter Grass, illustrated with archival stills.
The Tin Drum
Argos Films — Artémis Productions — Bioskop Film — Film Polski Film Agency — Franz Seitz Filmproduktion — GGB-14 — Hallelujah Films — Jadran Film
Arrow Academy Dual Format Blu-ray and DVD Edition / FCD510 / Released 30 January 2012
Region B / DVD Region 2
Feature aspect ratio: 1.66:1 / Colour / High Definition (1080p MPEG-4 AVC ) DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio — German / Commentary: LPCM Audio English / English subtitles
Director’s Cut: 163 minutes; Theatrical Cut: 141 minutes