Tuesday, March 14, 2017

1979 Winner, The Tin Drum

The Tin Drum

Directed by:  Volker Schlöndorff

Distributor:  United Artists/World Pictures

Released:  May 1979

Country:  West Germany

Allegorical stories are okay by me as long as the underlying story stands on its own and makes sense.  If the Letter A on a dress or a talking pig stand for something beyond their literal meaning, then fine, as long as I can understand them as the Letter A or a talking pig.  The problem comes when the viewer needs a decoder ring or some sort of handbook with him to tell him what the symbolic meaning of whatever the allegory is.  The Wizard of Oz doesn’t have to be about bimetallism or 19th century American politics in order to be enjoyed.

Then there’s The Tin Drum.  Here are a few things we have going on here:
  • Oskar is a little boy fathered by either a Pole or a German
  • Though years go by, Oskar spends most of the movie as a toddler
  • Oskar constantly bangs on his tin drum, needing replacement after replacement
  • Oskar’s tin drum can make Nazis stop goose-stepping and start waltzing
  • Oskar’s scream breaks glass more efficiently than Ella Fitzgerald’s scat
Jan, Alfred, and Oskar with his titular tin drum
Let me back up a step.  The Tin Drum is a story told by Oskar himself, starting with the sordid conception of his mother in Western Poland.  Oskar’s mother can’t make up her mind who she wants to be with following World War I, Alfred the German cook or her cousin Jan the Polish postal worker, so she marries Alfred and carries on with Jan.  Oskar comes along and on his third birthday, he gets as a present—you guessed it—a tin drum.  The title drum in hand, and with his family squabbling over whether it is better to remain Polish or embrace the new National Socialism sweeping the country next door, Oskar decides that falling down the stairs will allow him to stop from growing up and having to deal with life.

Oskar in super-creepy mode
The Swiss actor playing Oskar, David Bennett, plays the role with total creepiness.  Oskar seems sort of reasonable as he narrates the film, but when you see that look on his face when he screams, you just want to look away.  Oskar’s story is not a straight path—he tells about his two dads, his weird mother Agnes who eats raw fish likes it's M&Ms, and a dwarf in the circus with whom he strikes up a long-term friendship.  All of this is going on as the Nazis are gaining power in Germany.

World War II breaks out, further underscoring the differences between Jan and Alfred.  At some point we are introduced to 16-year-old Maria, who is hired to work at Alfred’s shop.  She’s a pretty thing, and not all that choosy with whose company she shares.  Sometime later, she'll have her own weird kid, and like Oskar, he will never be sure who the father is.  The suspects?  Alfred, who must be in his 50’s by then, or Oskar, who, of course, is 3.  Yes, this was quite the controversial movie.

Maria:  She's not too picky
Now for the allegory part.  I guess one could watch this and say Oskar’s age stands for something, and the nationalities of Oskar’s fathers stand for something, and of course, “the tin drum” stands for something.  By the end of the movie, really couldn’t have cared less about that.  I didn’t like Oskar, I didn’t like his fathers, I didn’t like his friends, and I certainly didn’t care for the Nazis.  (As for Maria, I thought, if I had been there, I bet I would have a shot with her.)  I didn’t really care whether Oskar would ever age again or whether he’d ever beat his serious addiction to getting another and another new tin drum.  All I knew was that other smarter people than me were somehow in the know and “got” all of the meaning in this highly acclaimed movie.  And that I didn’t.

The Title:  Die Blechtrommel, in German.  The title is the same as the 1959 Günter Grass novel upon which this film was based.  My bet is that I wouldn’t have understood the book any more than I did the film.

Representation of heartless industry, or just a Tin Man?
The Culture:  As with so many Best Foreign Film winners, we get a look at pre-war Europe, this time western Poland.  One  theme showing up these pre-war films is the terrible uncertainty people felt at the time.  The choice always seems to beGo with the Nazis and make the best of it, or oppose the Nazis and expect the worst.  It is, of course, easy to judge in retrospect, but it must have been a difficult thing to grapple with for so many (non-Jewish) families in Europe.

Agenda danger:  If I had understood all the symbols in this thing, I may have been wearied by the message.  I sensed an anti-nationalism coming from Oskar’s unhappiness at having been raised by two men who represented two political views and countries of origin.  But as usual, the Nazis who are the bad guys, and who can object to that?

Best Picture that year:  Kramer vs. Kramer.

Rating:  The Tin Drum won a bunch of awards and made a ton of money, so who am I to say it’s no good?  I will say that I laughed a few times, though I’m not too sure I was supposed to.  In the end, it made me ask myself this philosophical question:  Who is smarter: intellectuals who watch movies like this and understand all the meanings, or the common folk who avoid watching movies like this?

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