Allegories have trouble standing for something else if they are
too convincing as themselves. That is the difficulty with "The Tin
Drum," which is either (a) an allegory about one person's protest against
the inhumanity of the world, or (b) the story of an obnoxious little boy.
movie invites us to see the world through the eyes of little Oskar, who on his
third birthday refuses to do any more growing up because the world is such a
cruel place. My problem is that I kept seeing Oskar not as a symbol of courage
but as an unsavory brat; the film's foreground obscured its larger meaning.
what does that make me? An anti-intellectual philistine? I hope not. But if it
does, that's better than caving in to the tumult of publicity and praise for
"The Tin Drum," which has shared the Grand Prix at Cannes (with
"Apocalypse Now") and won the Academy Award as best foreign film, and
is hailed on all fronts for its brave stand against war and nationalism and in
favor of the innocence of childhood.
I don't think little Oskar is at all innocent in this film; a malevolence seems
to burn from his eyes, and he's compromised in his rejection of the world's
evil by his own behavior as the most spiteful, egocentric, cold and calculating
character in the film (all right: except for Adolf Hitler).
film has been adapted by the West German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff from the
1959 novel by Gunter Grass, who helped with the screenplay. It chronicles the
career of little Oskar, who narrates his own life story starting with his
mother's conception in a potato patch. Oskar is born into a world divided: in
the years after World War I, both Germans and Poles live in the state of
Danzig, where they get along about as well as Catholics and Protestants in
has fathers of both nationalities (for reasons too complicated to explain
here), and he is not amused by the nationalistic chauvinism he sees around him.
So, on his third birthday, he reaches a conscious decision to stop growing. He
provides a plausible explanation for his decision by falling down the basement
stairs. And for the rest of the movie he remains arrested in growth: a
solemn-faced, beady-eyed little tyke who never goes anywhere without a tin drum
which he beats on incessantly. For his other trick, he can scream so loudly
that he shatters glass.
is a scene in which Oskar's drum so confuses a Nazi marching band that it
switches from a Nazi hymn to "The Blue Danube." The crashing
obviousness of this scene aside, I must confess that the symbolism of the drum
failed to involve me.
here we are at the central problem of the movie: Should I, as a member of the
audience, decide to take the drum as, say, a child's toy protest against the
marching cadences of the German armies? Or should I allow myself to be annoyed
by the child's obnoxious habit of banging on it whenever something's not to his
liking? Even if I buy the wretched drum as a Moral Symbol, I'm still stuck with
the kid as a pious little bastard.
what about the other people in the movie? Oskar is right at the middle of the
tug-of-war over Danzig and, by implication, over Europe. People are choosing up
sides between the Poles and the Nazis. Meanwhile, all around him, adult
duplicity is a way of life. Oskar's mother, for example, sneaks away on
Thursday afternoons for an illicit sexual interlude. Oskar interrupts her
dalliance with a scream that supplies work for half the glassmakers in Danzig.
Does this make him a socialist or an Oedipus?
after, he finds himself on the road with a troupe of performing midgets. He
shatters glasses on cue, marches around in uniform and listens as the troupe's
leader explains that little people have to stay in the spotlight or big people
will run the show. This idea is the last Oskar needs to have implanted in his
movie juxtaposes Oskar's one-man protest with the horror of World War II. But I
am not sure what the juxtaposition means. Did I miss everything? I've obviously
taken the story on a literal level, but I don't think that means I misread the
film as it stands.
we come in armed with the Grass novel and a sheaf of reviews, it's maybe just
possible to discipline ourselves to read "The Tin Drum" as a solemn
allegorical statement. But if we take the chance of just watching what's on the
screen, Schlondorff never makes the connection. We're stuck with this cretinous
little kid, just when Europe has enough troubles of its own.