"The Tin Drum" will be hard to beat as the season's most prestigious bad idea for a movie: Volker Schlondorff's earnest, picturesque foreshortening of Gunter Grass' celebrated first novel.
The book has been regarded as the towering achievement of postwar German literature by admirers and a symptomatic abomination by detractors (both factions have a point). The movie shared the grand prize at Cannes with "Apocalypse Now" (there were no smiles in the jury room last year . . .) and won the Academy Award as best foreign-language film.
Arriving today at the K-B Fine Arts, the Outer Circle and a new Circle affiliate, the Old Town in Alexandria, as a cultural event of some stature, "The Tin Drum" is likely to be remembered as another conspicuous example of why the urge to film certain books ought to be resisted.
Although Grass and Schlondorff consulted frequently on the screenplay of "The Tin Drum" and the novelist contributed additional dialogue to several sequences, their temperaments and styles never seem to merge.
It might be asking the impossible to expect any director to achieve a satisfactory distillation of Grass' dislikable but compelling allegory, which appears to be an intellectual autobiography disguised as a nightmarish family and social chronicle.
The symbolically stunted protagonist -- a nihilistic child named Oskar -- looks askance at the world moments after his birth and cripples himself at the age of 3 to prevent further physical growth. When deprived of his percussive security blanket, a toy drum that he beats frequently and passionately, Oskar evolves a glass-shattering scream whose repercussions persuade interfering adults to let well enough alone.
Oskar seems to come naturally by his desperate furtiveness. He traces his origins back to the day his mother was presumably engendered, a day when his grandmother, seated in a drizzly potato field and roasting spuds over an open fire, hides his grandfather, a fugitive pursued by two constables, under the folds of her abundant skirts.
Born into an earthy, ambiguous lower-middle-class household in the "free city" of Danzig in 1924, Oskar also prefers concealment and a jealously guarded low profile.Given the historical period, it's easy to jump to the conclusion that he's cultivating the art of lying low out of political foresight. Indeed, the coming upheaval in Germany is foreseen and openly stated by one of his mentors, a dwarf entertainer named Bebra, who takes Oskar into his troupe during World War II: "Our kind has no place in the audience. We must perform; we must run the shows or others will run us. And the others are coming, with their torchlight parades."
Although Oskar's narrative is set against the rise of Nazism and the outbreak of war, with certain conflicts theoretically embodied in the mixed ethnic backgrounds and loyalties of his mother (a Slav), his putative father (a German) and his probable father (a Pole), the historical context seems fleeting and arbitrary in the film version. Oskar's fears and resentments revolve around the sexual triangle in his home, where his mother and her lover, also a first cousin, sustain their affair before the child's rapt voyeuristic gaze.
The movie might be coherently interpreted as a Freudian horror fable. Little Oskar is certainly bad news for both his papas, and David Bennent, the 12-year-old cast in this uniquely undesirable role, is a suggestively sinister presence. However, he doesn't have a personality forceful enough to unify the rambling continuity or replace the narrative voice and complex of meanings that gave the book intellectual vitality and authority.
Five years ago, Heinrich Boll's novel "The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum" was served admirably by Schlondorff's grave, methodical style.
Schlondorff appears to have been acutely conscious of the disparity between his style and Grass'. A curious excerpt from his production diary, quoted in press material for the film, observes, "I do not possess what gives power to the book, Gunter Grass' language." Despite duplication of the novelist's dialogue, this confession is all too true. Grass' writing gets a grip on you even when you feel alienated from his obsessions.
Schlondorff can't provide the missing literary force either. To begin with, he doesn't share Grass' obsessive vision. Schlondorff has tried to cast the characters as astutely as possible and to reproduce the dreadful highlights as faithfully as he can. As appalling as some of this imagery is, particularly the famous gross-out of the severed horse's head swarming with eels, which somehow provokes Oskar's mother into a suuicidal diet of fish, fish and more fish, Schlondorff seems emotionally remote from the horror and perhaps baffled by it.
Unlike Lina Wertmuller in "Seven Beauties" and Bernardo Bertolucci in "1900," for example, Schlondorff never has his heart in the atrocities. This is no doubt to his credit in the larger scheme of things, but it underlines his unsuitability as an artistic go-between for the cinema and Gunter Grass. Schlondorff's version of "The Tin Drum" is a handsome Classics Illustrated condensation of a peculiarly wrathful, turbulent and unresolved classic.