Shattered Glass: The Tin Drum (1979)

TIN DRUM, THE (1979)

To view The Tin Drum click here.

There’s a scene in the novel, The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass, that portrays a place called The Onion Cellar Club. It’s a place where Germans can go to listen to music, cut open onions and weep. The onions provide the tears. It’s a harsh symbol, implying that the emotions that would naturally bring the tears are nonexistent. It also implies they’ve got a lot to cry about and much soul-cleansing to do. The movie does not contain such a scene but goes a different path, taking the seemingly unfilmable novel and narrowing it down to a little under three hours. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but many readers of the book were disappointed. I was not. I am never disappointed because a movie isn’t like the book. Two different mediums require two different routes to the same destination. I’m not even disappointed when a movie seems to project an entirely different attitude or tone than the novel, as long as it succeeds and stands on its own merits.  But does the 1979 adaptation do so? I’m not convinced.

Gunter Grass had a long and successful career, culminating in a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. His books dealt with the rise of Nazism and its effect on the German psyche. As a soldier in the German army, he certainly had an insider’s point of view. Still, even with his service in the army well known, he kept his recruitment into the Waffen-SS a secret until 2006. Once that is known, his novels take the tone of guilt-ridden anguish as reflective of an entire population and hones it down to one man confronting his personal demons.

TIN DRUM, THE (1979)

The movie version of The Tin Drum truncates the plot but retains the same rough elements. The story, both novel and film, is told in the style of magical realism and, indeed, the protagonist, Oscar (David Bennent), narrates his own birth. He quickly discovers his high-pitched scream can shatter glass, as well as the nerves of anyone within a hundred yards. And when he’s given a tin drum for his third birthday, he flings himself down some stairs and decides he will grow no more. From here, discussing the plot is rather meaningless as it is not necessarily a story that drives one from point A to point B in climactic fashion. Rather, it is filled with observations of humanity as Oscar becomes a professional performer, sleeps with two different women in particular, possibly fathers a child and eventually decides to start growing again. Carted off in a baby buggy at the end, there is no indication, as in the novel, that he is headed off to a sanitarium to write his memoirs. Instead, the ending is purely ambiguous, and the story combines several timelines from the book, during and after the war, into one linear path to Oscar’s sendoff.

To say The Tin Drum is good is obvious but not enough. Yes, it is a well made film, that clearly takes its subject seriously and seems intent on faithfully adapting the ideas of the novel. But it does not seem to have the same urgent sense of doom and despair found on the page. Oddly, it seems to work better only if you’ve read the novel, not the other way around. In fact, when I first saw the movie back in 1980, I didn’t think much of it at all. It was only after reading the book that I became interested in seeing it again and following the story from a reader’s perspective. Then, I liked it a lot more. But a movie adaptation should stand on its own and while The Tin Drum is indeed a good movie, it needs the novel more than the novel needs it. But why?

TIN DRUM, THE (1979)

Part of the problem is the casting of Oscar. David Bennent, 12-years-old at the time of filming, was too young to portray the character into adulthood. It would have been better to cast a small child with another actor as the older Oscar, as so many movies have done, or simply use one adult actor the whole time. It was magical realism after all. I’m pretty sure that would have worked. Nowadays, of course, they would have no problem using an adult actor accompanied by CGI to make him appear young and small. But Bennent never looks like an adult and more importantly, never acts like one. His movements, his inflections, his mannerisms, never quite carry the day. He does a fine job and should be given the utmost praise for his effort but most of it was out of his control.

Another part of the problem is that, despite being magical realism, the movie has a very staid and stodgy style. Its director, Volker Schlöndorff, seems too constrained, too cautious about going too far. As a result, much of the movie looks and feels like a standard period drama, not a blistering take on the collective German guilt over Nazism. Speaking of which, one doesn’t really get that sense at all. It seems to have as much to do with Germany’s collective guilt as any other World War II period film.

The Tin Drum is worth watching for many reasons but it has more fire in its heart if you read the novel first. Normally, I recommend reading the novel second, since that’s where you get the backstory details that might distract you while watching the movie. But with The Tin Drum, the novel provides the tone that is missing from the movie and without it, the movie feels meaningless. Good, but meaningless. With that background, and knowledge of Grass’s own guilt, the movie suddenly means a whole lot more.

Greg Ferrara

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14 Responses Shattered Glass: The Tin Drum (1979)
Posted By artfrankmiami : June 18, 2017 5:01 am

I guess I had some of the same reservations you had with the kid actor, mostly with the sex scenes and the recent call by a forgotten politician (within last ten years) the movie be banned for child pornography. But I think it over all worked for me. I remember it to be compellingly weird and funny is some places…and tragic. Haven’t seen it since probably cable in the early 80s, though I do have a hard won VHS tape salvaged from Blockbuster, wifey hates foreign films so it’s been unplayed for over 20 years…

Posted By Emgee : June 18, 2017 5:40 am

I couldn’t disagree more. I love this movie, even without having read the novel.

“Bennent never looks like an adult and more importantly, never acts like one.”

That’s the POV Volker Schlöndorff decided to take: that of a boy who refuses to grow up, because he despises the behaviour of adults and wants to remain in his infantile universe. The director has often said that without Bennent he couldn’t have made the movie, because he didn’t want to use a small person or a “normal” boy.

“too constrained, too cautious about going too far.”
I am glad he didn’t go the Terry Gilliam route, cause that would have seriously harmed the tone of the movie.

“not a blistering take on the collective German guilt over Nazism.”

That’s criticizing a movie for not being what you want it to be or wondering if that is what the director intended. I think he never wanted to make an anti-Nazimovie, but a movie about a boy and his family, and botth the personal and political tragedies they endure.

Posted By thea1989 : June 18, 2017 9:21 am

Watch the movie before the book?!?! Your true love is definitely the movies!

This post really clarified my ambivalence towards this film. I found the book powerful, but I certainly wouldn’t say that I liked it, rather that it effected me – it made me feel queasy and uncomfortable and frustrated. The movie, on the other hand, just didn’t effect me very much. There’s something thin about it and I think you’re totally right that there’s something rather staid and conservative about the style of the filmmaking. The movie lacks something, even though visually it’s so rich.

Also agree about the casting of the child. I actually think the stills of Bennent are far more powerful than his performance in the film.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 18, 2017 3:28 pm

Artfrankmiami, it certainly is compelling and funny and a very good movie but, as I will explain in my response to Emgee, David Bennent doesn’t quite work for me.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 18, 2017 3:41 pm

Emgee, I’m pretty sure our new comment policy means you have to agree with me all the time now, but I’ll let you off the hook just this once but from on out, I want fawning praise.

Now then, as always, you make well reasoned arguments that make a good case. The POV you mention in using Bennent is certainly valid but if his intention was to show us that Oscar will never grow up, it doesn’t work because Oscar’s language and actions are clearly adult in nature. As a result, Bennent comes off as a child actor trying his best to seem older than his years.

As for the Gilliam route, he does go that way once or twice which makes it an uneven mix. For instance, when the nuns are gunned down on the beach, we see their happy dancing ghosts float away to Heaven. So you get a visual blend of about 80 percent realism and 20 percent magical realism that feels incomplete as if each time he goes that route hes afraid it might spoil the movie but if he doesn’t then it will be too standard.

As to your last point, I can only say I’ve been guilty of that many times in my life but I guess I feel like the point of the movie is to examine that guilt and could have done it more powerfully.

Despite all of this, I do like it and feels it’s a very good complement to the novel.

Posted By Emgee : June 18, 2017 4:27 pm

Greg, often i do agree with you, but alas, not this time. Hopefully with your next post i can shower you with compliments.

First of all, thanks for YOUR compliments; who doesn’t like to be praised?

As i said i haven’t read the novel (yet) but i wonder how Grass handled the problem of a boy talking like an adult. That he behaves like one i disagree with; he keeps playing with toys even when the bullets fly. But i agree there’s an uneven mix between adult and childish behaviour. I’ve always seen Oskar as a boy who’s born fully formed: how else can he make a conscious decision not to grow at age three?

I also see the story as part fantasy, part reality, which can indeed lead to an uneven mix,but i think Schlöndorff pulled it off, you clearly don’t. And he cut the scene with the nuns for the very reason you mention. Great minds , eh?

As for the guilt question, i don’t think he intended that to be a major theme in this movie. I don’t get the sense that anybody in this movie feels they have a lot to feel guilty about.

Posted By EricJ : June 18, 2017 5:17 pm

It’s a German movie, but Grass’s plot takes place in the part of Poland that Germany was disputing in WWII before conquering it–
The fantasy plot seems to be a straightforward symbolist piece of “little” Poland refusing to “grow up” by trying to stay independent and refusing to take its place on a stand for or against Germany, even as the crazy chaotic events of the outside world close in on them.

From there, you can pretty much determine the X=Y symbolist “meaning” of every strange aburdist scene in the story, and an “Onion Party” doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of emotion, but what we would call a national “Pity Party”. (We’ve been throwing a lot of them since Trump was elected.)
That we don’t, and still try to delve Peter-Pan metaphors about the character not growing up just seems to have its roots in the fact that the movie came out in ’79, when a new burst of moviegoing in the 70′s was just starting to discover foreign films, and trying to get their mainstream heads around them. Certainly with Schlondorff, Germany, and wartime metaphor, there’s more to try and wrestle with here.

Posted By Doug : June 18, 2017 8:38 pm

And now for something completely different.
Today I watched the crystal clear and perfect Criterion Blu Ray of “The Front Page”.
Excellent.
I may tip my toe into films of other cultures/countries, but I will always love Hollywood pictures from back when.

Posted By Doug : June 18, 2017 9:10 pm

Aaaannnddd of course I meant “His Girl Friday”, not “The Front Page”. I turned the computer back on just to check, and I’m glad that I did.
“His Girl Friday”-Russell and Grant.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 18, 2017 10:58 pm

Doug, I’ve been focusing on more foreign lately because I feel a need to get back to it since my teens and twenties were filled with them and then I started focusing on Hollywood classics. I’ll get back to Hollywood again though. Always do.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : June 18, 2017 11:03 pm

EricJ, astute observations. One comment you make about when it was made being a factor is something that’s always fascinated me. You could take several adaptations of famous novels and plays through the years and clearly pick out how each one reflects it’s time in the styles it chose, the plot elements it focused on, etc. The source, in many ways, simply provides a jumping off point.

Posted By Doug : June 19, 2017 7:24 pm

Greg, I didn’t have much, if any exposure to foreign film’s until I was in my 40′s and DVDs became the standard for home video. I’m at the point now where I visit “Streamline” to discover films such as “Judex” which expand my film horizons. Always more to see.

Posted By chris : June 20, 2017 3:35 pm

Thea1989, while seeing a movie before reading the book may seem that someone is into movies more than the written word, I disagree. To me it just means that they understand that they’re two different mediums, and reading the book first can taint your experience of the movie(how many times have you heard, “The book was much better”?).
A novel can cover so much more ground than a two hour or even four hour movie that it seems impossible to give a movie version a fair shake UNLESS you see the movie first.
The late Gene Siskel once said that if he had an unread copy of a book that he found out was being made into a movie, he never picked up the book in order to give the movie its fair share as a reviewer.
All that being said, Greg, I respectfully disagree with you on the casting of David Bennett. The fact that he still appears as a 12-year old boy when his character is an adult later in the film to me emphasizes his character not wanting to grow up, as well as the symbolism of Nazism being the extreme, brutish and terrifying bully of a child who destroys all who disagree with him.

Posted By thea1989 : June 20, 2017 10:00 pm

Chris, I certainly recognize that they are two separate mediums, but choosing to watch the film first does privilege film over books. I don’t think reading the book first ‘taints’ the experience of watching a film, or vice versa. But, I do often find that reading the book first enriches my experience of films. I would also say that it often depends on the book or film itself.

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