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The Tin Drum (Volker Schlöndorff) 1979


    The Tin Drum, German director Volker Schlöndorff’s gargantuan Palm D’or winning allegory about one boy’s civil discontent, suffers from its inconsistently presented point of view. The movie rarely attempts to convey any sense of reality even though it deals explicitly with German history, since it filters its tale through the perspective of Oskar, a boy who stunts his own growth at the age of three by throwing himself down the stairs. We’re supposed to see his lack of growth as a protest against the world around him. Since the only thing he perceives in the human behavior around him is constant and absurd hypocrisy, he willingly becomes an absurd constant so that he can avoid indulging in those same contradictions. This is a cynical and hopeless stance for a movie to take, and it’s a difficult one for the audience to swallow, but I was willing to accept it as long as it stayed true to itself.


    Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Oskar often seems to be shown in a sentimental light that seems to endorse his behavior, but just as frequently we have no idea how we’re supposed to feel about him. Whatever goodwill his cleverness is supposed to stir up in us is surely counterbalanced by his mean streak, but the film doesn’t quite ever take him to task for his actions. Instead, it just pushes him along with its epic sweep into a new situation, hoping we’ll forget about the last. How we’re supposed to feel about him is never coherent, despite his narration. He seems as often petulant as revolutionary. The Tin Drum is based on a novel, and I imagine a conceit like Oskar would work much better on the page, where the limited narration he provides could give us only the information required to support the author’s intent. The screen has a way of making things literal though, so even if a voiceover narration track is created, we can still see things differently than Oskar might. As such we wonder how Oskar learned of his own conception if he hated his family, and we question why he doesn’t have any noticeable relationship with his grandmother, who seems to be similarly stagnant. It seems as if information is being withheld from us just to retain the film’s hard-won, but twisted, pessimism. One gets the impression that Oskar’s reflexive cynicism is being endorsed by much of the film, but then the ending abruptly suggests that change might not be so bad after all (I understand the novel went on for a few hundred pages after the ending point of the film, which probably explains this disconnect). It doesn’t help matters that the twelve-year-old boy cast as Oskar is a less than compelling screen presence. Mostly, his performance seems to consist of a series of reaction shots, and as a result instead of being a domineering force in this tale, he’s reduced to being a passive observer.


    Schlöndorff’s direction is as often shoddy as it’s accomplished. The best moments of the movie find it at its most disgusting, where its gallows humor makes a bigger statement on the sad state of affairs in this phase of German history. Still, for every great image, such as the moment where Oskar’s parents wave a tiny Nazi flag in front of their newborn, there are several that are poorly conceived. The worst that springs to mind is when Schlöndorff equates the attempted rebellion of some Poles that is considered the first battle of World War II rather literally with a house of cards. Several obvious phallic objects are placed to make the audience squirm when the film moves in its second half toward being an exploration of Oskar’s budding sexuality. When a Jewish toy maker dies on his ledger, you aren’t sure if the film’s being ironic or snide, or if it’s just incidental. German director Werner Herzog has tackled material similar to The Tin Drum several times and won, because he seems to understand that the unnatural relationship between man’s natural impulses and civilization’s desires are so at odds that one must take a stance bigger than a cynical or sentimental view to move beyond them and observe them. Schlöndorff’s treatment of this material is horribly flawed because he’s too interested in making the audience feel comfortable before he starts damning everything.


* * 


Jeremy Heilman