I remember the first time I had ever heard of Volker Schlöndorff’s 1979 masterpiece The Tin Drum. It was in a film calendar for Symphony Space roughly ten years ago (back when they still showed classic and recent films on a much more frequent basis than they do now). It was one of the classic foreign films being shown on one of the weekends. I later discovered that it was an art-house sensation that won the Palme d’Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival and won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. I bought the Criterion 2-disc set a couple of years later. For some reason I never got around to watching the film, but I do remember watching the Gary Rhodes documentary short on disc 2, Banned In Oklahoma, which covers the 1997 Oklahoma confiscation of the film due to a child pornography judicial ruling and the six years of legal wrangling that ensued.
Based on the novel by Günter Grass, Schlöndorff’s film tells the tale of World War II-era Poland through the eyes of a little boy named Oskar Matzerath (a terrific David Bennent) who refuses to grow up on his third birthday after being repulsed by the hypocrisy of the adults and the irresponsibility of society. As the world around him rockets toward the madness of World War II, Oskar pounds on his beloved drum and continues to perfect his glass-piercing shrieks. I finally saw The Tin Drum on the big screen at Film Forum last September in a new DCP restoration of the director’s cut (which had premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival). The new version includes roughly 20 minutes Schlöndorff had to cut from his 1979 original, including scenes with Alfred Matzerath (the conscience-ridden Nazi sympathizer), Treblinka survivor Fajngold, and an imaginary orgy at the court of St. Petersburg.
I find it quite fascinating that young Oskar throws himself down the cellar stairs to stop his aging. What I find fascinating is not so much his ability to do so (although I’d bet nearly every 25 year-old woman would do it if it meant staying physically young forever), but that only his physical aging stops. Mentally, Oskar continues to grow and eventually becomes susceptible to the things he was looking to avoid as an adult, including war, love, and lust. Three women will have relationships with Oskar: Maria, Rosewitha, and Lina Greff. Maria is Alfred’s housekeeper and Oskar’s first love. Oskar eventually impregnates her, but becomes angry with her when he discovers that she’s been having relations with Alfred. Rosewitha is a member of a traveling troupe of little people run by Bebra, whom Oskar meets early in the film. When Oskar later joins Bebra’s troupe (which is entertaining German troops during the war), he meets Rosewitha and they enjoy a brief romance together. Lina is the wife of a local grocer and Scoutmaster, as well as a neighbor, who has an affair with Oskar after his return to Danzig in Poland. Each relationship and its consequences have a profound impact on Oskar as he continues to age mentally.
The Tin Drum is an incredible journey to be a part of. The novel it was based on consisted of three parts, but only the first two were wisely adapted for the film. David Bennent is just astounding as little Oskar. The rest of the cast, including Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler, Daniel Olbrychski, Katharina Thalbach, and Charles Aznavour were outstanding. Igor Luther’s cinematography was amazing, and Maurice Jarre’s score was very enjoyable. Schlöndorff did an excellent job with this film (the one for which he’ll most be remembered). As an added bonus, here’s a radio interview with him on the Leonard Lopate Show from last September. You can listen to it here.