Tuesday, April 6, 2021

The Tin Drum (1979, Volker Schlöndorff)

Quest Status: 737 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #774

Based on a towering literary classic by Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass, The Tin Drum starts from absurdity and builds to insanity, conveying the inexplicability of fascism. It follows a boy named Oskar, the son of an incestuous nymphomaniac conceived from a potato field tryst between a peasant woman and an arsonist. Oskar stops growing at the age of three out of disgust with the adult world, a conscious decision that he disguises by throwing himself down the cellar stairs. Even at birth, he has the body of a six-year-old, which never seems to grow or change, even after his fateful third birthday.

His third birthday is notable, not only for his portentous fall, but for the present that he receives from his mother: a red and white tin drum. He carries it with him everywhere, and whenever some poor soul tries to take it away from him, he screams bloody murder--shattering everything from his teacher’s glasses to cathedral windows across the street. In this way, he soon learns that he can control the adults around him. As he grows older, everyone continues to treat him like a toddler, although he becomes more intelligent and aware of the world around him than he lets on.

At first, we sympathize with Oskar. The world around him is certainly worthy of disgust--even before the Nazis come to the forefront. Director Volker Schlöndorff does his best to make everything seem sick, never shying away from an opportunity to make the viewer uncomfortable. Oskar’s birth is a hellish nightmare vision, and his mother’s incestuous philanderings with her Polish cousin are sweaty and filthy affairs--as far from erotic as possible. Later, during a seaside family outing, Oskar and his parents watch a fisherman haul in a horse head infested with countless squirming eels. His mother vomits, the father takes the eels home and cooks them--only able to convince his wife to eat them after her cousin pleasures her to stop her from crying.

However, as Oskar grows older, we see that his stunted physical growth cannot prevent him from being corrupted by the adult world. After his mother dies from overdosing on raw fish, his grandmother brings in a 16-year-old girl named Maria to help at his father’s grocery store. Being 16 himself, Oskar is filled with lust for the pretty Maria, first feeding her sherbet powder made fizzy with his spit before attempting to seduce her. He’s filled with jealousy when his father also becomes sexually involved with the underage Maria, revealing a monstrous rage that shows that he is capable of just as much cruelty as the adults around him.

But let’s not forget Oskar’s trademark tin drum, often seen as an instrument of protest against the rise of Fascism. Maybe this is the case when Oskar disrupts a Nazi rally by leading the band away from their rigid march into a swinging Blue Danube waltz, to the great distress of the Reich dignataries in attendance. But what about when Oskar joins a troupe of dwarfs in performing for the Nazi occupation forces in France, even looking on as the soldiers gun down a group of nuns collecting shellfish on the beach at Normandy? The film’s central allegory is clearly more complicated and ambiguous than it’s usually made out to be, although its unflinching view of fascism and innocence corrupted gets closer to the soul of Nazism than most films about the era have ever dared.

---263 films remaining---

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