Allegorical, profane, ridiculous, and surreal, The Tin Drum describes the bizarre life of a character who magically stunts his own physical growth at the age of three because he finds the world of adults repulsive, then becomes first a medical curiosity and later a freak-show attraction who travels with a group of performing dwarves. All of this material is set against the backdrop of the Third Reich’s rise to power, because The Tin Drum—adapted from the Günter Grass novel of the same name—is about politics as much as it’s about childhood, disappointment, fantasy, and other themes. Lavishly produced and sprawling across a 142-minute running time (never mind the latter-day director’s cut that runs even longer), The Tin Drum is challenging at best, impenetrable at worst. It’s a marvel that the picture earned widespread acclaim, including the Oscar for Best Foreign Film of 1980 and the Palme d’Or at the previous year’s Cannes Film Festival, because some vignettes contain the sort of grotesque weirdness that one typically associates with, say, the films of David Lynch.
For instance, what is there to make of the elaborate birth scene that begins with shots of a fully grown boy flopping around a special-effects vision of his mother’s womb, and then continues with a roller-coaster-style POV shot hurtling from the womb, through the walls of a mother’s vagina, and into the waiting hands of a kindly doctor? Or how about the gleefully disgusting sequence in which the protagonist’s father walks along a shoreline and discovers a decapitated horse’s head that’s filled with squirming eels? Just for good measure, the protagonist’s mother stands nearby, vomiting onscreen as the father happily extracts eels through the horse’s mouth and eye sockets, and in the next scene, the father decapitates the live eels before cooking and eating them.
Anyway, the title refers to a beloved toy that the story’s hero, Oskar, is given on his fateful third birthday. He pounds the drum day and night, even as he inevitably transitions from childhood to adolescence and adulthood. Through actions, dialogue, and voiceover narration, Oskar conveys contempt for the behavior of “normal” Germans, as represented by his father’s enthusiastic participation in the Nazi Party and his mother’s affair with her husband’s brother. Oskar searches in vain for like-minded individuals until he meets the wise, middle-aged dwarf who runs the performance troupe; sensing Oskar’s specialness, the showman makes an attraction out of Oskar’s drum-playing as well as Oskar’s peculiar superpower, the ability to break class simply by shrieking.
From start to finish, The Tin Drum is loaded with heaviosity, metaphor, satire, and symbolism, so admirers and scholars can undoubtedly spend inordinate amounts of time unpacking the implications of the film. I must confess that I’m not among the film’s admirers, and whether I’m a scholar is for others to say, so I will instead remark that my attempt to consume the picture as pure narrative was not enjoyable. The movie is so brisk and strange that it commands attention, but the absence of accessibility and warmth created problematic opacity, at least for this viewer. Given that the picture is shot through with betrayal, despair, and tragedy, I’m comfortable acknowledging that The Tin Drum represents the sophisticated delivery of worthy literary material. As to what any of it means, or why the experience of watching the picture should be deemed edifying, I’m at a loss. Like those eels the protagonist’s father extracts from a rotting and waterlogged carcass, this movie is an acquired taste.
The Tin Drum: FREAKY