Monday, April 27, 2020

Volker Schlondorff's The Tin Drum

Didacticism is the country cousin of symbolism. Volker Schlondorff’s The Tin Drum based on the Gunter Grass novel is rife with both. Oskar (David Bennent), the central character, willfully engineers his stunted growth by falling down a staircase at the age of 3, thereby becoming a self-appointed gnome. He’s actually fully conscious at birth, possessed with an unearthly agency, a man who only appears to be a child. In fact, one of the most disconcerting scenes in the l979 movie may be the sight of Oskar consummating sex with a grown woman—particularly with contemporary audiences so sensitive to images of pedophilia (the film was banned in both Oklahoma and Ontario because the then 11 year old actor was depicted having sex with his 24 year old counterpart). But the symbolism is more layered. Beginning at the end of the l9th Century, The Tin Drum is a magical realist history of The Third Reich with Oskar representing a countermanding force of resistance. He literally marches to the beat of a different drummer. At one moment in the movie his erratic drumbeat usurps a Nazi rally turning the martial music into a Waltz. “Once upon  a time there was a gullible people who believed in Santa Claus,” he says. "But Santa Claus was the Gasman.” Amidst the often obvious schema are some unsettling ambiguities. Whenever someone attempts to take away his drum, Oskar’s screams shatter glass. It’s obviously a clarion call. Yet there’s an odd mixing of metaphors in the depiction of Kristallnacht when glass is also shattered as Nazi thugs destroy Jewish businesses and houses of worship. Schlondorff weaves a tapestry of associations, a portrait of Hitler is substituted for Beethoven with Beethoven replaced again. Goethe is juxtaposed to Rasputin, as enlightenment is contrasted to demonism. And Oscar has two fathers, Jan Bronski (David Olbrychski) the Pole and the cook, Alfred Matzerath (Mario Adorf), the German. Danzig (Gdansk) which the Nazis annexed on September 1, 1939, functions a little like Vonnegut’s Dresden as the center around which the film’s universe rotates. Poles, Kashubians, Germans and a Jew Sigismund Markus (Charles Aznavour) all inhabit the city in an increasingly unholy misalliance. Potatoes and voyeurism count amongst recurring leitmotifs as do clocks. Despite Oskar's machinations, the march of time is both relentless and irremediable.

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