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There’s a scene in the novel, The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass, that portrays a place called The Onion Cellar Club. It’s a place where Germans can go to listen to music, cut open onions and weep. The onions provide the tears. It’s a harsh symbol, implying that the emotions that would naturally bring the tears are nonexistent. It also implies they’ve got a lot to cry about and much soul-cleansing to do. The movie does not contain such a scene but goes a different path, taking the seemingly unfilmable novel and narrowing it down to a little under three hours. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes but many readers of the book were disappointed. I was not. I am never disappointed because a movie isn’t like the book. Two different mediums require two different routes to the same destination. I’m not even disappointed when a movie seems to project an entirely different attitude or tone than the novel, as long as it succeeds and stands on its own merits. But does the 1979 adaptation do so? I’m not convinced.
Gunter Grass had a long and successful career, culminating in a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. His books dealt with the rise of Nazism and its effect on the German psyche. As a soldier in the German army, he certainly had an insider’s point of view. Still, even with his service in the army well known, he kept his recruitment into the Waffen-SS a secret until 2006. Once that is known, his novels take the tone of guilt-ridden anguish as reflective of an entire population and hones it down to one man confronting his personal demons.
The movie version of The Tin Drum truncates the plot but retains the same rough elements. The story, both novel and film, is told in the style of magical realism and, indeed, the protagonist, Oscar (David Bennent), narrates his own birth. He quickly discovers his high-pitched scream can shatter glass, as well as the nerves of anyone within a hundred yards. And when he’s given a tin drum for his third birthday, he flings himself down some stairs and decides he will grow no more. From here, discussing the plot is rather meaningless as it is not necessarily a story that drives one from point A to point B in climactic fashion. Rather, it is filled with observations of humanity as Oscar becomes a professional performer, sleeps with two different women in particular, possibly fathers a child and eventually decides to start growing again. Carted off in a baby buggy at the end, there is no indication, as in the novel, that he is headed off to a sanitarium to write his memoirs. Instead, the ending is purely ambiguous, and the story combines several timelines from the book, during and after the war, into one linear path to Oscar’s sendoff.
To say The Tin Drum is good is obvious but not enough. Yes, it is a well made film, that clearly takes its subject seriously and seems intent on faithfully adapting the ideas of the novel. But it does not seem to have the same urgent sense of doom and despair found on the page. Oddly, it seems to work better only if you’ve read the novel, not the other way around. In fact, when I first saw the movie back in 1980, I didn’t think much of it at all. It was only after reading the book that I became interested in seeing it again and following the story from a reader’s perspective. Then, I liked it a lot more. But a movie adaptation should stand on its own and while The Tin Drum is indeed a good movie, it needs the novel more than the novel needs it. But why?
Part of the problem is the casting of Oscar. David Bennent, 12-years-old at the time of filming, was too young to portray the character into adulthood. It would have been better to cast a small child with another actor as the older Oscar, as so many movies have done, or simply use one adult actor the whole time. It was magical realism after all. I’m pretty sure that would have worked. Nowadays, of course, they would have no problem using an adult actor accompanied by CGI to make him appear young and small. But Bennent never looks like an adult and more importantly, never acts like one. His movements, his inflections, his mannerisms, never quite carry the day. He does a fine job and should be given the utmost praise for his effort but most of it was out of his control.
Another part of the problem is that, despite being magical realism, the movie has a very staid and stodgy style. Its director, Volker Schlöndorff, seems too constrained, too cautious about going too far. As a result, much of the movie looks and feels like a standard period drama, not a blistering take on the collective German guilt over Nazism. Speaking of which, one doesn’t really get that sense at all. It seems to have as much to do with Germany’s collective guilt as any other World War II period film.
The Tin Drum is worth watching for many reasons but it has more fire in its heart if you read the novel first. Normally, I recommend reading the novel second, since that’s where you get the backstory details that might distract you while watching the movie. But with The Tin Drum, the novel provides the tone that is missing from the movie and without it, the movie feels meaningless. Good, but meaningless. With that background, and knowledge of Grass’s own guilt, the movie suddenly means a whole lot more.
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