“A country unable to mourn,” Volker Schlöndorff wrote in his journal as he adapted Günter Grass’ novel, The Tin Drum. “Germany, to this day, is the poisoned heart of Europe.” When the film premiered in West German cinemas in early May 1979, it figured within a country’s larger (and, in many minds, long overdue) reckoning with a legacy of shame and violence. Indeed, the Nazi past haunted the nation’s screens, more so than it ever had since the end of World War II. The American miniseries Holocaust aired that year on public television in February and catalyzed wide discussion about Germany’s responsibility for the Shoah. Later that month, Peter Lilienthal’s David gained accolades at the Berlin Film Festival for its stirring depiction of a young Jewish boy living underground in the Reich’s capital during the deportations to the camps. History returned as film; retrospective readings of the Third Reich by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, Edgar Reitz, Helma Sanders-Brahms, and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg (among others) would become the calling card of the New German Cinema and bring this group of critical filmmakers an extraordinary international renown. In 1979, The Tin Drum won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. A year later, it would become the first feature from the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) to receive an Oscar for best foreign film.
The film’s source had occasioned much controversy and scandal when it came out in 1959. Grass’ book assailed the German past and scorned the German present with its solemn religiosity, prudish domesticity, and unrelenting conservatism, the so-called “Economic Miracle” of the reconstruction era. Contemporary critics denounced the work’s lack of piety, its pornographic indulgence, and its utter disregard for established values and institutions. As an angry intervention and a virulent provocation, Grass’ epic portrait stood out as the most prominent German novel of the postwar era. Its baroque bombast, expressive bravado, and earthy sexuality prompted comparisons with the prose of Grimmelshausen and Rabelais as well as with the tableaux of Grosz and Brueghel. Its narration, with switches of perspective and discourse as well as temporal leaps, was at once engaging, scintillating, and utterly unreliable. Oskar, an inmate of an insane asylum, freewheels between his childhood in Danzig and the postwar German situation, shifting between first and third person, changing moods and tonalities. For all its acclaim, the property posed inordinate challenges for any prospective film adaptation. Over the years various directors were mentioned as possibilities, from Johannes Schaaf to Roman Polanski (whom one producer also wanted to cast in the role of Oskar) to Andrzej Wajda. Schlöndorff, a seasoned professional with a dozen features behind him, came to the project as a director known for his cosmopolitan flair, his intellectual acumen, and his experience with literary sources (including films based on works by Robert Musil, Heinrich von Kleist, Bertolt Brecht, and Heinrich Böll).
Rather than trying to impose a personal style on Grass’ epic or to mimic the novelist’s idiosyncratic prose and the complexities of his multilayered narrative, Schlöndorff approached the work less as an auteur with his own vision than a metteur en scène with an ethos of precision and craft. Above all, he set out to capture the novel’s singular recreation of the German past. Casting a twelve-year-old boy (David Bennent) as Oskar, the director fashioned “world history experienced from below,” from the perspective of a small rebel armed with a drum and graced with a voice that breaks glass. A twisted variation on the German Bildungsroman, Oskar’s education between the fronts of German and Polish history becomes an exercise in alienation and deformation. The youth refuses to accommodate himself to the status quo and compels himself to stop growing at the age of three. His fulsome drumming beats against the tenor of the times and his shrill scream poses a public menace. The film imbues the boy’s negativity with a subversive power; his acts of refusal both issue from and militate against the experience of history.
Schlöndorff crafted his adaptation as “a German fresco,” a series of portraits of a city, a street, and a neighborhood in Danzig before and during World War II. (He did not include the novel’s third part—the postwar sequence in Düsseldorf—believing that it would deserve another film.) At times cameraman Igor Luther’s images have a panoramic sweep, be they the open potato fields and train tracks that disappear into the distance which frame the film or the breathtakingly beautiful long shot of the doomed Polish city on the eve of the German invasion. Much of the running time, however, involves a ground-level and close-up view, the perspective of the child who partakes of the world of grownups with equal measures of fascination, horror, and disgust. Stylistically, Schlöndorff boxes the compass of cinematic possibility from slapstick humor (early Chaplin was a particularly strong influence), political satire, and homeland film, commingling comedy and tragicomedy, melodrama and mock-heroic drama, the poignant and the grotesque, the epic and the small scale. Self-consciously carnivalesque in its formal resolve, the film affords a variety of attractions in its big top of generic possibility.
More than any other New German director, Schlöndorff strived to negotiate the specifics of a national history (he once described himself as someone who “consciously makes German films”) while reaching out to find international support, appeal, and exposure. His casting was impeccable and brought together a stunning ensemble of players from West Germany, Poland, and France. The scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière had worked with Luis Buñuel, his editor Suzanne Baron with Jacques Tati, his composer Maurice Jarre with David Lean; even the makeup artist, Rino Carboni, had worked with Federico Fellini. The Tin Drum and Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun both premiered in 1979, works that were at once critical and popular. Both couched their narratives in petty bourgeois families and circumscribed settings; each film probed minutely the terms of a time and a place in a manner that allowed their small worlds to assume a larger and exemplary significance. In fact, the provincial perspectives made these films attractive for American co-producers (United Artists provided a large portion of The Tin Drum’s 7.5 million mark budget) and distributors and transformed these two art films into New German Cinema’s largest box-office successes.
Upon receiving the Oscar for The Tin Drum, Schlöndorff spoke as a German proud of his achievement and yet critical of his own country and displeased with its history, as a filmmaker mindful of many Germans and Jews who had found themselves mistreated and dispossessed by this nation. Speaking to the Hollywood audience, he accepted the award in the name of Greman emigrants and exiles “whose tradition we want to pick up: Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Pabst, Murnau, Lubitsch.” A vibrant chronicle of an Oedipal revolt, The Tin Drum aligns itself with the marginal perspective of a delinquent who is also an artist, which, one might say, recalls the unreconciled temperament that had defined and fueled the New German Cinema, an alternative cinema whose critical return to a bad history fostered a dramatic renewal of German film history.
Eric Rentschler, a film and literary historian, is Professor and Chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University. He is the author of, among other books, The Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and Its Afterlife and West German Film in the Course of Time.