The Tin Drum

video review by Gary Johnson

In Germany, Günter Grass's The Tin Drum is one of the most highly-regarded novels of the post-World War II era and Volker Schlöndorff's film version of The Tin Drum is held in near-equal esteem. In America, The Tin Drum won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1979; however, today, the movie's fame is unfortunately tied to an infamous incident in Oklahoma where the police confiscated a videotape of the movie and a court subsequently banned it. (A federal judge has since ruled that The Tin Drum is protected as a work of art under Oklahoma and federal law.)

Don't let the pious dissuade you from seeing The Tin Drum. It's one of the most original, stunning films of the past twenty years. Now released on DVD by Kino On Video (and distributed by Image Entertainment), we can experience the movie in a new digital transfer from the original 35mm negative. (The movie's cinematographer, Igor Luther, supervised the transfer.) The extras on this DVD edition include a video essay featuring original set designs, costume sketches, storyboards, and behind-the-scene photographs. Most notably, however, the DVD version of The Tin Drum includes audio commentary on a separate audio track by the movie's director, Volker Schlöndorff.

Audio commentaries are all-too-often disappointing. Directors and actors that we might otherwise idolize come unprepared and end up babbling about inconsequential minutia. However, Schlöndorff's commentary is well-considered and filled with fascinating background material. For example, at the beginning of the movie he talks about one of the key aspects of the movie--the casting of David Bennent in the role of Oskar, a three-year-old boy who decides to stop growing: "Had I not found him, I don't know how we could have made the movie," Schlöndorff says. He consulted with a doctor to determine if it were at all possible for a boy to arrest his growth by way of a fall (as happens in the novel), and the doctor told him that there are cases where a child has stopped growing without any discernible reason. One such case was the son of actor Heinz Bennent. Schlöndorff had worked with Heinz Bennent on The Lost Honor of Katarina Bloom, so he soon called him and arranged for a meeting with the actor's son. From his first meeting with David, Schlöndorff knew he had found his lead actor.

David Bennent is truly remarkable. When the movie was made, David was 11 years old. However, he had the body of a six-year-old boy. Yet, his eyes could pierce right through you. Critic Andrew Sarris wrote, "From the moment he appears on the screen, every other character seems drawn to him like metal filings to a magnet." Around David Bennent, Schlöndorff constructed a marvelous cast, with Angela Winkler as Oskar's mother, Agnes; Mario Adorf as Agnes's husband, Alred Matzerath; Daniel Olbrychski as Agnes's lover, Jan Bronski (we suspect he is Oskar's father); Katharina Thalbach as a peasant girl named Maria who comes to help take care of Oskar; and Charles Azavour (who starred in Francois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player) as a Jewish toy store owner, Sigismund Markus. David Bennent's father, Heinz, has a supporting role as a Nazi who dresses like a boy scout.

The Tin Drum tells the story of Oskar, a boy who is inseparable from his toy drum. If anyone tries to take it away, he lets out an ear-piercing scream capable of shattering glass. He takes the drum with him everywhere, even into the schoolroom. When the teacher tries to take the drum away, his screams shatter her eyeglasses.

From the moment of his birth, Oskar is confused and dissatisfied with the world around him. He sees a world of childish adults who engage in furtive sex. Very quickly, he decides he doesn't want to grow up, so he throws himself down the cellar stairs. His plan works and his growth is completely halted. In effect, his drum playing and failure to grow up can be interpreted as his way of returning to the womb and forestalling his entry into the debased world of adults.

With its fantastic elements, the story of Oskar resembles a dark fairy tale. However, the story is set against the rise of Nazism. Oskar lives in Danzig, Poland where the first battle of World War II was fought. So the fantastic story of Oskar is grounded in a realistic environment, meticulously created by the set designs and costumes. Director Billy Wilder told Volker Schlöndorff, "You can't do this." You can't set a complicated story against a complicated background. But Schlöndorff wisely didn't sway from his vision. (Wilder would later lobby for The Tin Drum to receive the 1979 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.)

Schlöndorff never lets the fantastical elements overcome the movie's realism. During the DVD's audio commentary, he talks about one episode that didn't survive the final edits. In this episode, German soldiers fire at a group of nuns who are collecting shells on a beach. As in the book, the nuns avoid the gunfire by flying into the clouds. Schlöndorff filmed the entire episode, with nuns against a blue screen and a wind machine swirling the air: "All of a sudden," says Schlöndorff, "one had the feeling we were out of the movie. It was not real anymore." If nuns could fly, then Oskar's glass breaking would seem less miraculous. Therefore, Schlöndorff edited out the sequence with the nuns.

When Schlöndorff read Günter Grass's The Tin Drum for the first time, he wrote in his diary "it could become a very German fresco, the history of the world seen from and lived on the bottom rung: enormous, spectacular paintings grouped together by the tiny Oskar." Schlöndorff brilliantly realized his vision in The Tin Drum. His movie only tackles the first two sections of the novel, leaving out the post-war section, when Oskar chooses to start growing again. Rumors persist that Schlöndorff may one day film the remainder of the novel. We can only hope.


The Tin Drum is now available on DVD from Kino On Video (distribution by Image Entertainment). The DVD is letterboxed at 1.85:1 ratio with yellow electronic subtitles. The DVD includes a 16-minute video essay featuring original set designs, costume sketches, storyboards and behind-the scenes photographs. Volker Schlöndorff provides audio commentary, and Maurice Jarre's musical score is isolated on an alternate audio channel. Suggested retail price: $39.99. (A video version, without the extras, is available from Kino On Video for $39.95.) For additional information about The Tin Drum, we suggest you check out the Kino On Video Web site and the Image Entertainment Web site.