by Allan Fish
(West Germany 1979/2010 164m) DVD1/2
Aka. Die Blechtrommel
Somewhere between wonder and disillusion
p Franz Seitz, Anatole Dauman d Volker Schlöndorff w Franz Seitz, Volker Schlöndorff, Jean-Claude Carrière, Gunter Grass novel Gunter Grass ph Igor Luther ed Suzanne Baron m Friedrich Meyer, Maurice Jarre art Nicos Perakis
David Bennent (Oskar Matzerath), Angela Winkler (Agnes Matzerath), Mario Adorf (Alfred Matzerath), Katharina Thalbach (Maria), Charles Aznavour (Sigismund Markus), Heinz Bennent (Greff), Daniel Olbryschki (Jan Bronski), Andrea Ferreol (Lina Greff), Tina Engel (Anna Koljaiczek, younger), Otto Sander (Musiker Meyn),
Gunter Grass’ original novel was always going to be a challenge to adapt for the screen, hence Schlondörff’s gaining the assistance of the author himself, as well as the illustrious Carrière, whose career spanned numerous collaborations with Luis Buñuel, another impossible adaptation for Schlondörff (Swann in Love), and the classic 1990 version of Cyrano de Bergerac. Even with such help, Schlondörff’s film was attacked by the literary purists for jettisoning much of the complexity and detail of Grass’s work. Such charges do seem rather unjust, however, when one considers the time constraints of a feature film. To do real justice to the book would require the sort of running time Fassbinder was giving almost simultaneously to the concurrently set adaptation of Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. What Schlondörff aims rather to do is use the essence of the story, coupled with his own visual schemas to create a view of the rise of Nazism through the eyes of a child and, in that regard, he could not have been more successful.
Oskar’s story begins rather with the events leading up to the birth of his mother at the end of the 19th century, and builds up through her own marriage to grocer Alfred Matzerath and simultaneous love affair with her Polish cousin, Jan in pre-war Danzig. Revolted by the adult world he sees around him, Oskar decides, at the age of three, that he no longer wishes to grow up and, after a carefully arranged ‘accident’, through sheer force of willpower, he stays the same height indefinitely. He becomes somewhat of a medical phenomenon, even more so when he inadvertently discovers his ability to shatter glass with his high-pitched scream, normally let forth when anyone tries to steal his tin drum. His spoilt antisocial behaviour, coupled with the frustration of her forbidden love affair, drives his mother to suicide, and soon after Oskar also contrives to get her beloved Jan shot in the resistance to the Nazi invasion in September 1939.
All of which is undoubtedly distorted enough, but where the film really courted controversy was in regard to Oskar’s relationship with his young stepmother cum nanny, Maria. The ridiculous charges of child pornography issued in Oklahoma may be laughable, but there’s still something more than slightly disturbing about seeing a 12 year old actor effectively giving oral pleasure to a young girl (a shot cut from some prints at the time), and then even making love to her under the covers following another round of their perverse ‘spit and sherbet’ game. Everything, however, as seen by a child, is seen to be exaggerated, a couple of notes above reality. We see the war progress in the form of advancing and retreating Nazi flags on maps of the eastern front, and the hysteria generated by the Nazis could not be better served than through a child’s eye view, not least in the perversity of Oskar’s joining an effective freak show of midgets who entertain the then retreating Wehrmacht troops. The cast adds to Schlondörff’s wondrous fruit salad of a movie; Thalbach as the sexually open Maria, Von Trotta’s Katharina Blum and Christa Klages (Winkler and Engel) as mother and grandmother, the inimitable Adorf and especially young Bennent as Oskar, one of the great performances by any child in the history of cinema. He’s a spoilt, selfish brat to end them all, but in himself a perfect microcosm for the rise of fascism in a film that will continue to enthral and appal audiences in equal measure. A 2010 director’s cut added four key sequences.