Abandon All Hope

The Tin Drum

How much thematic and allegoric weight can a feature-length movie comfortably shoulder before it collapses? I tend to think that film, which consumes and synthesizes more media than any other, is the art form best suited to nearly unfathomable richness and depth.

Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum proves me wrong. Based on Günter Grass’ famous 1959 novel, it has so much to say that it can’t survive as a narrative. Books, of course, have several advantages over movies when it comes to Big Issues — most importantly, they can go on and on and on — and Grass’ tome (which I of course have not read) is nearly 600 pages long. Considering that the typical screenplay is between 110 and 120 pages, it’s easy to see how condensation can lead to a cake so dense and dry that it’s hard to swallow.

The effort might be worth it if the movie spoke meaningfully to the human condition, but in the case of The Tin Drum, the essence is distilled misanthropy, and its flavor is so outrageously bitter that you immediately reject it.

In the womb, Oskar looks like a fully developed child. He says in voiceover that he doesn’t want to come out. On his third birthday, he declares that he will grow no more, and jumps off a staircase to create a plausible explanation for his willed arrested physical development. From that day forward, he beats his tin drum whenever he feels like it, and if someone tries to take it away from him or otherwise displeases him, he screams at a pitch that shatters glass. The setting for this highly realistic drama is Danzig, Germany, mostly during the rise of the Nazi party.

The movie is first and foremost a work of deep cynicism. The Tin Drum is fundamentally allegorical, and consequently its authors’ belief that innocence no longer exists extends to all of humanity. Oskar is aware even before birth of the evil of the world and people, and he resists it immediately. His solution, while ingenious, cannot succeed, because the mere fact of his consciousness has made him corrupt — a modern original sin.

Oskar isn’t alone in stopping his development. He meets a circus performer who also stopped his growth, and he tells the movie’s protagonist that he must participate and not just observe; being passive means other people control your destiny.

Of course, Oskar isn’t actually passive. He asserts himself in socially unacceptable ways for his own selfish means. But the performer’s words stick with Oskar, who eventually becomes an entertainer for the Nazis.

The most obvious reading of The Tin Drum casts the movie as an anti-fascist scream of protest. Yet that’s a coarse interpretation of a text that seems much more ambiguous and hopeless. Sure, The Tin Drum isn’t down with Hitler, but it’s not down with much of anything; it might be the bleakest portrait of humanity I’ve ever seen.

There’s a glimmer of possibility when Oskar disrupts a Nazi rally, using his drum to inspire dancing rather than political fervor, but this scene — seemingly affirming the power of peaceful protest — is so fleeting that it merely teases the audience. Yes, Oskar has the ability to change things, but his soul curdled when he was conceived.

One could reasonably argue that The Tin Drum takes such a black view from its setting, and from the impending horrors of world war and the Holocaust. But that doesn’t explain the work’s complete lack of goodness. The political backdrop of the movie — which eventually becomes the foreground — is often overshadowed by its dim take on sexuality.

The Tin Drum begins with Oskar’s grandmother being impregnated by an arsonist hiding under her skirt. Oskar has two fathers because there’s no way of knowing whether his mother’s husband or her lover contributed the semen that fertilized the egg.

And in scenes that got The Tin Drum banned in the enlightened state of Oklahoma, an adult Oskar (in his three-year-old body and played by David Bennent, who was 12 at the time) has sex with the new wife of the man who was married to Oskar’s mother. (I think. See how complicated this gets?) Of course, there’s soon a child, so Oskar considers himself the father of this new boy, who could be, by my calculation, both his step-brother and his son by his step-mother. He could also be neither of those.

People inclined to psychosexual readings will have a field day with this shit. Sex, of course, is the only way a man can come physically close to returning to the protection of the womb, a point made bluntly by the arsonist who disappears between the legs of Oskar’s grandmother. The males of The Tin Drum are therefore both lecherous and infantile, just as the women are both Madonnas and whores. The movie finds little pleasure and no lasting joy in the flesh, because it’s tainted; sex begets more misery and death.

Bleakness isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. Many of my favorite movies are as fun as unanesthetized major surgery, but they’re usually so specific that you can still find beauty and warmth in the world, even as the films crush your heart. At the very least there’s an authenticity to them, a grounding that gives them the ring of truth.

The Tin Drum offers the indignation of firmly held belief, but there’s nothing real in it. Part of that stems from its fantastic conceit, but even within the premise there’s room for resonance and a connection with humanity. Instead, it tries to pile the weight of all the planet’s evil, dirt, disease, and corruption on your shoulders. But you shrug and it’s gone, because it’s a fraud.

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