THE TIN DRUM -- At the K-B Fine Arts, Old Town and Outer Circle.
When we first meet Oskar in "The Tin Drum," he already wears the sardonic expression with which he will, for the next two and a half hours, observe the rise and fall of the Third Reich and the rising and falling of grown-up haunches. But he happens to be still inside the womb.
Now that is what you call Weltschmerz. Oskar hasn't even gone through the trauma of birth yet, but life, although it offers extreme social and sexual provocation, will always fail to shock him. He has expected the worst. Only the promise of a tin drum on his third birthday entices him to leave the womb at all; when he gets that drum, he refuses to continue growing. By remainig small, he's able to keep his participation in the world at a minimum, while constantly registering protests with his drumming and his glass-shattering scream.
The novelist, Gunter Grass, and the director and screenwriter, Volker Schlongdorff, have said that they intended the film's Oskar to represent prolonged childhood, rather than deformity. The part is played by David Bennent, who was 12 years old at the time of the filming but whose growth is retarded. With his lean little body and pale blue eyes peering cynically from a worn face, he certainly makes a bizarre and dour Peter Pan. This Oskar is not a child but a homunculus, such as the figure of the baby Jesus was in medieval representations, before it became artistically fashionable for Jesus to be depicted as a rosy, chubby, dimpled infant.
Through Oskar's unblinking eyes, we see the overstuffed pleasures of the Danzig bourgeoisie, its grotesque sensuality, its enthusiasm for Nazism, its wartime pride, its shattered nationalism, its new beginnings. It is, in other words, the exact German Experience that filmgoers recently ran throught with a jollier companion in "The Marriage of Maria Braun."
And, in spite of Grass's novel and his additional contributions to the film, which won an Academy Award, the symbolism isn't much subtler. Every character, every action reeks of a metaphorical relationship with Germany, although matching these things up one for one might be difficult.
All sexual relationships, for example, are openly and cheerfully triangular:
Oskar's Mama, her husband and her cousin; the husband, Oskar and the maid; Oskar, his midget-patron and the latter's Italian girl friend. When Oskar's mother becomes pregnant, her husband spontaneously assures her that it doesn't matter whose baby it is. Another motif is the willingness to swallow repulsive food: Oskar is force-fed by rough urchins; his mother is made to eat eels until her disgust turns to greed; and Oskar seduces the maid by giving her sweet powder mixed with his spittle.
There is a beastly stylishness to this film, and a crude humor belying the solemnity. But this version is no complicted masterwork, as evidenced, perhaps, by the fact that Maria Braun got just as far, having more fun.