The Tin Drum: Bang the Drum Loudly

The very notion of a “director’s cut” of The Tin Drum is initially a little perplexing. After all, the 1979 film won the Palme d’Or and the Oscar for best foreign-language film. There were never any reports of an anguished production, or of strife between director Volker Schlöndorff and his producers, Franz Seitz, Anatole Dauman, and Eberhard Junkersdorf. Schlöndorff’s artistry hadn’t gone unnoticed.

However, the German director always insisted that the release version wasn’t quite what he had intended. As part of the worldwide distribution deal, United Artists had placed a two-hour-and-fifteen-minute limit on the running time. Schlöndorff had also been in a great hurry to finish the film in time to premiere it at Cannes. The Tin Drum was then so well received that nobody thought about revisiting the cut.

Still, Schlöndorff felt a nagging frustration that The Tin Drum wasn’t complete. He claims he asked his producers several times to let him edit in the sequences that he had had to leave out the first time around. “Why should we?” was their predictable response, he recently recounted to me. They told him that if he “messed” with it, everybody would think “there was something wrong with the picture . . . And besides, it costs a lot of money and blah blah blah!”

Years passed. Seitz and Dauman died. And the original materials, which were being kept in a lab in Berlin, were about to be thrown away. That’s why, in the summer of 2009, Schlöndorff agreed to take possession of a truckload of film cans. The next generation of producers, Florence Dauman and Peter Seitz, were less skeptical than their parents about allowing Schlöndorff “to have a go at it,” as he puts it.

The director therefore set to work on the 180,000 feet of film negative that had come his way. Luckily, he had an extremely detailed copy of his original shooting script and was able to identify the material he needed for the new scenes, about twenty minutes of footage. If you haven’t seen the film for a few years, you may not notice the extra material. The scenes fit seamlessly into the film, mostly amplifying ideas and themes that were already there: making it even clearer that the narrator in the child’s body is far more worldly wise than his innocent appearance would suggest, and reminding us that the often comic events we see on-screen in the first part of the film prefigure the Holocaust.

The Tin Drum is adapted from the first volume of novelist Günter Grass’s celebrated The Danzig Trilogy (which also includes Cat and Mouse and Dog Years). First published in 1959, the book, about a little boy, Oskar, who refuses to grow, caused a huge controversy in Germany, both because of its bawdiness and because it dealt in such an ironic and mocking fashion with the Nazi era. The film, which doesn’t cover the entire span of the novel, unfolds mainly in the 1920s and 1930s, in what was then the Free City of Danzig—the scene of Grass’s own early childhood—as the Nazis begin their march to power. Poles, Germans, and Kashubians coexist there in an uneasy peace. Oskar has intimations of the troubles ahead. Contemplating the grown-up world and his own likely future within it, he makes a conscious decision to remain a three-year-old—“a gnome, once and for all!”—throwing himself down the cellar stairs and permanently stunting his growth. He remains in a toddler’s body, physically weak but able to produce screams so high-pitched that they can shatter glass. These screams are his protection when anyone tries to take away his beloved drum.

Schlöndorff is twelve years younger than Grass but likewise lived through the Second World War, and it is clear that the material had a very personal resonance for him as well. His father had been a doctor, and his family had been based in an industrial suburb of the city of Wiesbaden, which was badly bombed in 1944. His conjecture now is that a family tragedy in February 1945—the death of his mother in a freak accident with a gas stove—led him to blank out all of his memories before then. “Just like Günter Grass, I am not inclined to be autobiographical, in my films or in my speaking,” he told me. “I would never go into treatment for a thing like that. I know there is a trauma, and you had better take care of that. It is also a fuel . . . Anyhow, we moved into the country or into the woods, into a log house, and the next thing I knew of the war was when it was over. The arrival of the Americans, the retreat of these last haggard and gaunt German soldiers. There was nothing glorious left of that army, and in came the wonderful, youthful American GIs . . . After that, the German society of before ’45 never had a chance with us, because we were all running over to the Americans.”

His remark about not giving a chance to the “German society of before ’45” is instructive. As a young director, Schlöndorff was part of the New German Cinema, a movement that rejected both the “old cinema” and, more generally, the social and political values of the older generation. His early features Young Törless (1966), an adaptation of Robert Musil’s novel about the decadence and cruelty of young military cadets during the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and A Degree of Murder (1967), a nouvelle-vague-style thriller starring sixties icon Anita Pallenberg and with a score by Brian Jones, were unashamedly countercultural movies. Further reinforcing his radical credentials, in 1970 Schlöndorff made a television adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, starring Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He was the embodiment of the angry young man. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975), the Heinrich Böll adaptation he codirected with Margarethe von Trotta, portrayed a West Germany riven by generational tension, the old establishment ferociously targeting anybody suspected of links with terrorism.

The Tin Drum is in a very different register. Grass’s story is told on-screen in picaresque, fablelike fashion, in keeping with the novel. The opening, in which Oskar’s grandmother has sex with a runaway felon while hiding him under her skirts in a potato field, was shot with a hand-cranked camera and looks like footage retrieved from the silent era. Composer Maurice Jarre’s use of the fujara adds to the uncanny feel of the storytelling. And yet there are still some of the same self-reflexive, Brechtian elements that characterize the director’s earlier work: whether it’s the self-consciously jerky camera in the early scenes, the narration, the jarring use of music, or the often surrealistic imagery, the imp of the perverse is always present. One of the fascinations of the movie is the way it reconciles all these different styles while nevertheless remaining accessible to a wide audience.

The film is told in two parts. The first, and richest, lasts until the death of Oskar’s mother (from her strange addiction to eating raw fish) and the execution of his heroic “uncle” Jan Bronski (Daniel Olbrychski) after the defense of the Polish Post Office—the moment at which the fierce rivalry over Danzig becomes apparent. The second half shows Oskar’s illicit relationship with the teenage housekeeper Maria, who is also having an affair with Oskar’s father, Alfred Matzerath (Mario Adorf). We see Oskar on his travels with his friend Bebra, a performing dwarf who is now entertaining the Nazis, and his love affair with Roswitha, a member of Bebra’s troupe. It’s all told with a wonderful fatalism. Some truly terrible and astonishing things happen to Oskar, and yet he maintains his childlike stoicism throughout. He’s an impassive observer with a knack for fitting in, using his screaming tantrums—which shatter everything from his teacher’s spectacles to the jars containing pickled fetuses in the doctor’s office—only for strategic purposes, to ensure that authority figures back away. His voice-over maintains its wry, measured tone throughout, his sense of the absurd contrasted with the very earnest perspective of the Nazis, whose Nuremberg-like pageant he gleefully disrupts.

That voice-over is key to the film. There may not be an obvious connection between The Tin Drum and Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, but Wilder was one of Schlöndorff’s greatest champions (“My number one cheerleader, so to speak”). Schlöndorff acknowledges Wilder’s advice about voice-over. “Wilder said, in the narration, you can say everything but don’t give information and don’t repeat what you see on-screen . . . He also said offscreen lines should be like somebody sitting next to you in the theater and murmuring into your ear things you wouldn’t have thought about.”

In the new, longer version, there is one significant addition to the narration. Throughout the film, Oskar isn’t shown speaking in an articulate way with the grown-ups (although his voice-over is highly sophisticated and ironic). However, Schlöndorff added a scene in which the boy actually speaks to the camera, discussing his discovery of Goethe’s Elective Affinities. We are reminded forcefully of just how precocious Oskar is. His body may not be growing, but his mind most certainly is.

Another important addition, near the end, is when the deranged Treblinka survivor Fajngold (played by Polish actor Wojciech Pszoniak) takes possession of the family grocery store. He speaks to ghosts—his wife and six children—refusing at first to acknowledge that they have died in the Holocaust. The scene adds an element of desolation and despair otherwise largely missing in a film where the Nazis (or at least their regional representatives) are portrayed as bungling nincompoops. For all the violence in the siege of the Polish Post Office, the main Nazi characters we see here tend to be grown men in shorts and brown shirts who look as if they could be on leave from Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. They are shopkeepers who behave as if they were masters of the world. That’s the point, though. Oskar is in a child’s body partly because he doesn’t want to take an adult’s-eye view of what is going on around him. The adults, meanwhile, are too smug to notice that Hitler isn’t just a glorified scoutmaster.

Grass, who considers himself half German and half Kashubian, has been criticized severely in recent years for not disclosing that, as a young man, he was a member of the Waffen-SS. (He has dealt with this period of his life in detail only in his 2006 memoir Peeling the Onion.) For some, the revelation about Grass’s Nazi connections couldn’t help but change their response to The Tin Drum. The mockery of the Nazis in the book and the film risks seeming disingenuous. Although Schlöndorff acknowledges that it was a shock to learn about the novelist’s Nazi links, he argues that The Tin Drum contains plenty of clues about its author’s past. “This is Günter Grass’s own childhood, except he grew. The parents, the whole relationship with the uncle, the neighbors, and the whole spirit of the period—that’s what he grew up in, and that’s how he ended up wanting to partake in the war,” he says.

Both book and film are predicated on an unreliable narrator. As Schlöndorff puts it, “Oskar is not an innocent, and the book is not written by an innocent either.”

For his part, Grass has praised Schlöndorff’s film for “delving into the heart of the subject” of the novel. It’s an ambiguous remark but implies that the novelist realized that the filmmaker fully appreciated the slippery, deceptive nature of the book, its evasions and its cunning way of blending realism with fantasy.

Schlöndorff has expressed the hope that the term director’s cut will soon be forgotten and that this longer version will simply become the standard. In whatever version it is shown, however, The Tin Drum is surely its director’s masterpiece—a truly disarming film that, taking its cue from William Blake, could be called an essay on both innocence and experience, on childlike idealism and a very adult depravity.

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