Thursday, 13 July 2017

1,001 Films: "The Tin Drum/Die Blechtrommel" (1979)

A deeply, richly strange adaptation of Günter Grass's allegorical novel, Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum observes the gathering Nazi storm through the eyes of Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent), a young boy of uncertain parentage from the hotly disputed port of Danzig, who - on his third birthday - vows never to grow another inch. As the army moves in, Oskar continues to express a desire to return to his mother's womb, thus escaping an increasingly cruel world; his stubbornness manifests in a bloodcurdling, glass-smashing shriek deployed whenever anybody threatens to take his beloved tin drum away from him. The symbolism is laid on thick, and it might be an idea to keep a historian close to hand: for the "bread and circuses" of Hitlerian rhetoric, an actual big top springs up, inhabited by tumbling midgets who naturally empathise with Oskar's condition, but can later be seen lining up in SS uniform, while there's an obvious parallel between the toy Oskar pounds away on and the military beat to which his country is seen to dance.

After that, you're on your own, though - with its cavalcade of dwarfs and tin soldiers, and Schlöndorff's clever use of the colour red - it may equally be possible to read these events as the darkest of fairytales, a Grimm fable from (in 1979, still recent) German history. Bennent, an old head on young shoulders, is very carefully directed through one of the most disconcerting performances in all cinema, asked to act not his age (which is to say, not cute, as so many child actors are) but years and decades older than he actually was, which gives a real creepy charge to those scenes wherein the actor - playing the teenage Oskar, still in a childlike body - has his libido awakened by the young woman who comes to work in the family shop. The sight of Bennent nursing his "son" - the result of Oskar's soursweet sex games with sherbet - would be disturbing enough in itself to power a film on the Nazi era, but Schlöndorff keeps coming up with arresting setpieces that both illustrate and dramatise the sickness and stunted growth that plagued German society of the time.

The Tin Drum is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Arrow Academy.

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