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The Criterion Collection presents
The Tin Drum (1979)

"It's too much of everything, and it keeps piling up."
- Agnes (Angela Winkler)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: May 17, 2004

Stars: David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler, Charles Aznavour
Director: Volker Schlöndorff

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence and sexual content, and some images that are just generally disturbing, especially to self-appointed Sooner State censors)
Run Time: 02h:21m:44s
Release Date: May 18, 2004
UPC: 037429187128
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AB+A- B+

DVD Review

Immediately after the Second World War, great swatches of German society engaged in a sort of collective, deliberate amnesia—the years between 1939 and 1945 were not to be mentioned, the rise and fall of the Third Reich was to be treated as some vaguely remembered dream from long ago and far away. It's the job of the artist, of course, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature, and that's exactly what Günter Grass did to his countrymen with his 1959 novel The Tin Drum. It's a marvelous, wicked, funny, ingenious book, smart about the ways of the human heart and of the particular social stratification of Grass's homeland, with a sort of Bavarian magic realism that makes Grass one of the great men of letters. For decades, he resisted offers to turn his book into a film, but finally relented to young Volker Schlöndorff, who, unlike Grass's other suitors, not only seemed to get the novel, but to have an elegant visual strategy for turning Grass's prose into something more cinematic. The result is this landmark motion picture, surely one of the finest and most important accomplishments of postwar German film.

The odd hero of the tale is Oskar Matzerath, who, at age three, makes a conscious decision not to grow any taller; he is as good as his word, and the story follows him through childhood and adolescence into his young adulthood, which coincides with World War II. (The novel and film have particular meaning for me and my family, as Oskar's hometown is Danzig, the city of my own forebears; after being run over by the blitzkrieg, the city was later renamed Gdansk, and returned to a certain prominence around the time of the release of this film for being the home town of Lech Walesa.) Oskar narrates his story, which begins with the conception of his mother, continues with prenatal Oskar in the womb, and leads into his maturity; this is very much a Bildungsroman, but Oskar Matzerath is no David Copperfield. Instead we get one of the most disturbing periods of twentieth-century central European history refracted through the consciousness of this strange little man, whose high-pitched squeal shatters glass, who must always be with the precious prop of the film's title, a gift from his mother for his third birthday, whose understanding of adults and their odd ways are those of a child, a child who has been given some peculiar models to follow. His mother, Agnes, is in a sort of Jules et Jim relationship with her husband, Alfred, and her true love, her first cousin, Jan.

The story turns are well matched by the technical elements of the filmmaking, which are at a very high level. The painterly cinematography is frequently stunning, and some of the images are startlingly memorable: live eels crawling out of a dead horse's severed head, for instance, just fished out of the ocean, then served for lunch. There's a fascination with the freakish here—Oskar is hypnotized by circus midgets, for instance, and later joins their number; and especially good are the parallels between children's games and the early days of Nazism, in which the brownshirted diehards were dismissed as a joke of the fringe, before they became too dangerous to laugh at. The nightmares of childhood have rarely been depicted in a more harrowing manner; twinned with the rise of Hitler, in many respects this is a horror movie.

Schlöndorff cast a 12-year-old, David Bennent, as Oskar, and if he isn't the most accomplished and polished performer, his great big eyes convey the journey of the protagonist, registering all the unusual, compelling, horrifying things he witnesses. All the performers are excellent, and especially good is Charles Aznavour, as a local toy merchant, the supplier of Oskar's precious drums; he's also Jewish, making him one of the first victims of the blitzkrieg when it rolls through Danzig. The director has clearly gone to school on all sorts of films, from Expressionist silents to Pinocchio to Leni Riefenstahl, and has made something that's respectful of cinematic history and of Grass' prose, yet has its own distinctive visual style. It's a striking, bold movie, made with passion and grace and craft.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Only occasional flecks and color imperfections detract from this otherwise fine transfer, which is richly saturated, with little grain and almost no scratches or debris. Cinematographer Igor Luther's landscapes are especially compelling, and they look brilliant here.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: A note in the accompanying booklet explains that the 5.1 track was mixed not from the final cut of the film, but rather from a six-track post-production magnetic element; hence the 5.1 track is not accessible via remote, as the slight differences between the tracks result in the subtitles not matching up properly. Either way, though, the audio sounds just fine; Maurice Jarre's fine score is well balanced with the dialogue and effects tracks. You'll appreciate it even if your German is as sorry as mine.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Deleted Scenes
Isolated Music Score with remote access
2 Documentaries
6 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Volker Schlöndorff
Packaging: Double alpha
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. screenplay pages for an unshot ending, with Schlöndorff commentary
  2. Grass reading an excerpt from his novel, compared with the same scene in the feature
  3. accompanying booklet, with notes from Grass and an essay by Eric Rentschler
  4. stills gallery
  5. color bars
Extras Review: Criterion has produced another handsome, illuminating two-disc set, with some fascinating extras. On the first disc, aside from the film and an isolated track for Jarre's score, you'll find an excellent commentary from the director, recorded in 1998; he speaks in English nearly continuously for close to two and a half hours, and he's terrific at this. He starts with casting; David Bennent is the son of an actor with whom Schlöndorff worked on The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, and a medical condition stunted his growth, for years; he was 12 at the time of the shoot. (Curiously enough, Schlöndorff relates that, years later, Bennent's growth accelerated, and now he's of average height.) He also speaks about Oskar as "the revenge of the lower middle class," condescended to by the bourgeoisie, looked upon by the proletariat as the enemy of the revolution; he shares many of these attributes with the leaders of the Nazi Party. (Oskar similarly and quite literally has their will to power, the desire to get everyone to march to the beat of his drum.) Schlöndorff talks about growing up in Paris, his love of American movies; working as an assistant director for Louis Malle and Jean-Pierre Melville; and about how Billy Wilder lobbied for the picture to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1979. It's an enlightening track, and well worth a listen.

Disc 2 has some choice material as well, starting with a sequence (05m:04s) of deleted scenes. The audio has been lost, but Schlöndorff provides commentary for these as well, and though he thinks they were wisely cut, they're fascinating to look at; most of them center on Oskar's circus dwarf buddies. Next, Volker Schlöndorff Remembers The Tin Drum (20m:16s), a 2001 German documentary for which Schlöndorff recorded an English-language track in 2004. It covers some of the same ground as the commentary track, and features on-set photographs, storyboards, rehearsal shots, and valuable info from the director on the filmmaking process. His English trips up a couple of times here—"pasted" comes out as "passted," and he says "indickted" for "indicted."

Next, under the heading News From the Front, are four brief clips from French television. The first, On Location (03m:20s), is a puff piece, featuring Schlöndorff and Grass; Writing the Film (04m:10s) shows screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière on the set of an insanely overpopulated talk show. Bennent and Schlöndorff (04m:09s) shows the director and the leading man; and Post-Palme (00m:36s) shows the director after the film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The Platform (08m:44s) offers a great compare and contrast: it's a crucial scene from the film, with the option of listening to Grass read the relevant passage from his novel. You can see that Schlöndorff has been respectful of the book, without paying it slavish obeisance. Similarly, there are script pages from an unshot original ending, with an audio introduction (01m:58s) from the director; the story follows Oskar into the 1950s, but Schlöndorff wisely chose to end his film with the armistice.

Perhaps best of all is Banned in Oklahoma (31m:20s), a documentary directed by Gary D. Rhodes about 1997 attempts in Oklahoma City to have The Tin Drum declared to be child pornography. The most frightening clips are of the judge who decided that Schlöndorff's film is equivalent to porn; almost as scary are the representatives of Oklahomans for Children and Families (OCAF), self-appointed morals czars who openly profess their disdain for petty little things like the First Amendment. The principal litigant, named Michael Camfield, is, ironically enough, an employee of the ACLU, who found three cops at his doorstep one day after the local Blockbuster Video told the police that he had rented The Tin Drum. Camfield seems to revel in the attention and he tries to promote his crappy music; but aesthetic judgments about him aside, he's not the one in Oklahoma City advocating censorship. Lost on OCAF, of course, are the obvious parallels between their tactics and those of the Nazis depicted in the film. (Special bonus: among the experts weighing in on the legal dispute are University of Oklahoma law professor and close personal friend of Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill.)

Finally, a stills gallery offers images of posters, and renderings of the Oskars in their head by Grass, Schlöndorff and Bennent; the accompanying booklet features edifying comments from the novelist about the director, and a useful essay by Eric Rentschler situating the film in the context of postwar German cinema.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

A vital document in the history of postwar German cinema and, more recently, in the free speech battles fought in the United States, The Tin Drum is a graceful, hypnotic movie, full of images that will stay with you, candid about the horrors of the period in which it is set, and deeply affecting about the perils, hopes, and nightmares of growing up. Its arrival on DVD from Criterion is most welcome, both as a motion picture worth watching or re-watching, and as a statement about the sanctity of our Constitutional rights.


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