Very occasionally a movie comes along that is so unique that it eludes conventional criticism. Such a movie is The Tin Drum, a German film which won the Grand Prize at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival (an honour shared with Apocalypse Now).
This genuine masterpiece was adapted from a 493-page novel by Günter Grass which is all but impossible to describe (It took sixteen years to get the book adapted for the screen!).
The Tin Drum describes the harrowing misfortunes of the people of Danzig before, during, and after Hitler’s seizure of the city, seen through the eyes of Oskar, a dwarf who defiantly beats a toy drum as a symbol of protest.
Born in 1924, he was a rebel from the start – There is a scene inside his mother’s womb during childbirth, when Oskar peers out, refusing to enter the delivery room. When the family doctor attempts to examine him, foetuses, snakes, and salamanders explode from their jars of formaldehyde, splattering the room with acid and glass.
It is evident from the beginning that Oskar is no ordinary child. On his third birthday, Oskar decides never to join the world of foolish grown-ups, so he takes his birthday present – a red and white snare drum – and throws himself down a flight of stairs.
As the years’ pass, Oskar remains the size of a midget, banging his drum to acknowledge the events that pass across the retina of his eye and developing a scream so horrible and deafening that nobody dares to take his drum away.
For the rest of the film, he never grows any larger.
When Poland falls and World War II begins, he beats his drum and the Nazi parades change tempo, forcing the stormtroopers and brown-shirts to waltz to the Blue Danube.
His mother commits suicide eating raw fish because she doesn’t want another child like this one. His father dies strangling on a swastika pin (his coffin is a bandage of grocery bags).
Oskar survives them all because he is ageless. His eyes are the pages on which history is written. He is indestructible.
Travelling through war-ravaged Europe with a circus troupe of performing gnomes, he makes his servant girl pregnant, is almost murdered by his own child, and seems to be a wise man in a world gone insane.
At various times, Director Volker Schlöndorff considered filming The Tin Drum with midgets and with Dustin Hoffman in the role of Oskar. But the biggest miracle of all in bringing this movie off was in the ultimate casting of a young Swiss teenager named David Bennent in the role of Oskar.
Bug-eyed and repellent, this bizarre child – the son of actor Heinz Bennent – suffers in real life from the same physical malfunction as the dwarf in the story.
But he doesn’t rely merely on external weirdness. As the new-born infant, as a three-year-old, and as an old man, he seems haunted by the gallows humour of the role.
Watching a Nazi rally through a hole in the wall or crawling through the attack on the Polish post office, using the frantic assaults on his drum as both a link and a barrier between himself and reality.
The Tin Drum is a film unlike anything you have seen before. Like the novel, it has provoked great argument and controversy, but it is a cinematic work of art that must be seen . . . and seen again.