This film is an unsettling and sometimes horrifying experience, but its best moments are as good as anything the postwar German cinema has given us. First as a novel and now as a film, "The Tin Drum" is a great epic of arrested development.
The ridiculously precocious hero, Oskar, does not want to be born. When he is born anyway, he looks forward to his third birthday, when his mother has promised him a tin drum. When the promise is kept, Oskar has all he needs in the world -- an instrument on which to beat out his petulant rage and existential arrogance.
So he resolves to stop growing forever afterward. He remains a stunted three-year-old, experiencing the mid-20th-century history of Germany and Poland as an outsider who is more than slightly demented. The story of Oskar is the story of a timem that is more than slightly demented, too -- a time when Nazi goons march through the streets and the storming of a Polish post office plunges an entire people into a tragic war.
Gunter Grass, the author of this strange and provocative novel, has described Oskar as a prototype for those who "would like to escape the process of becoming an adult and the inherent responsibilities." This is true enough. Yet Oscar is only the centerpiece of an enormous canvas that reaches from the sublime to the preposterous, from the inspired to flatly disgusting. The book incorporates a bizarre family history, where every child seems to have a pair of "putative fathers" and women conceive under the oddest circumstances. It includes powerful glimpses of World War II and burlesques of Nazi stupidity. It stretches from the realism of an air raid to the grotesquerie of a diabolical protagonist who delights in shattering glass with the power of his forever-three-year-old voice.
In adapting "The Tin Drum" to the screen, filmmaker Volker Schlondorff has seen it as "a very German fresco, the history of the world seen from and lived on the bottom rung." Regrettably, Schlondorff has not flinched from graphic depictions of the book's most repulsive episodes involving sex and scatology, and some sections of his film are inordinately difficult to watch. Yet these repellent passages are only isolated sections of a vast film that also contains scenes of bewildering beauty and heartfelt emotion.
In such movies as "The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum" and "Coup de Grace," Schlondorff has distinguished himself as a precise and careful director -- perhaps too careful, since his works can seem cool and lacking in passion. Even in the throes of "The Tin Drum" he has kept his directorial distance, recording the astonishing events of the story with a virtuosic control of every visual nuance. His firm and decisive touch is felt even when the plot flies into nightmare. When it seems we can't bear Oskar's outlandish history another moment, Schlondorff mediates for us, mitigating the extraordinary tension between the civilized moviegoer and this film that throbs with barbaric energy.
At the center of it all is Oskar himself, played by a boy named David Bennent , who is the son of an actor and a dancer. Quite simply, this is the greatest performance by a child that I have ever seen in a movie -- subtle, modulated, perfectly controlled under the most difficult circumstances. Surely Schlondorff must share in the credit for coaching young David through his role. Yet this fledgling actor has prodigious talent of his own, which he displays to marvelous advantage in a characterization that would have given pause to many a veteran of the screen.
The other cast members make good use of their own strong talents, skillfully orchestrated by Schlondorff and enhanced by the impeccable camera work of Igor Luther. "The Tin Drum" is very much a movie, and not a literary rehash of a literary tale. At times, Schlondorff even invokes the quaintly elliptical movements associated with silent-movie photography, embellishing the film's period atmosphere, yet also reminding us that we are watching a motion picture and not plunging backward into history -- or into Grass's famous novel. "The Tin Drum" takes pride in its own movieness, and this is a main source of the charm that softens the savageness of its story and theme.
It is disappointing that Schlondorff and his colleagues -- Jean-Claude Carriere, Franz Seitz, and Grass himself -- have not adapted the entire novel, though one must admit it is sensible of them to have reduced their tale to manageable proportions. The plot stops abruptly, long before the book's sardonic conclusion has been reached, and the chilling sense of paranoia that closes the novel -- with its rhyme about "the witch, black as pitch' -- has been grossly watered down. Yet, unlike many literary adaptations, "The Tin Drum" stands proudly on its own as a film.