[This post is prompted by The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club, which will be spotlighting a different blogger-selected film every month. This month's film was chosen by Jonathan of Cinema Styles. Visit his site to see his thoughts on the film and to join the main discussion.]
Volker Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum is an allegory for Eastern Europe in the period between the end of World War I and the end of World War II, a crucial period in world history that also serves as the historical setting for this dark fantasy. Young Oskar (David Bennent) is born into this troubled time, and on his third birthday, after having had enough of watching the adults carouse and act like fools — and having finally acquired the tin drum he was promised from birth — abruptly decides that he will no longer grow, will not progress from his current state for the rest of his life. Curiously enough, he actually achieves this objective, and from his third birthday on he remains exactly the same height, never varying from his tiny, bug-eyed perspective on the world, even as he grows older and the world disintegrates around him into the collective madness of Nazism.
Not that one can really blame Oskar for his purposefully arrested development: even before fascism begins developing in earnest in Germany and spilling over into its neighboring countries, the adults around this boy don't exactly provide a shining example of the life he might have to look forward to by growing up. His mother Agnes (Angela Winkler) conceived the boy with one of two men with whom she maintained a complicated love triangle throughout her life. Her cousin, Jan (Daniel Olbrychski), is passionate and sensitive, a Pole journalist with a voracious sexual appetite. But though Jan is likely Oskar's true father, Agnes winds up marrying the brutish fascist sympathizer Alfred (Mario Adorf) instead, condemning herself to an unhappy life even as she continues to cheat on her husband with her cousin. Oskar watches all this going on with a wide-eyed stare, dispassionate and intense. Oskar's voyeuristic habits and seeming disconnection from his surroundings are incredibly creepy, and Bennent's performance is a big part of this effect. Even before his vow to stop growing, he is an eerily adult little boy, with an unsettling and possibly evil quality within him. The mischievous smile that plays across his lips never quite reaches his bulging fish eyes, and there's something oddly mechanical about the way he attaches himself to his tin drum, banging on it with a clumsy but insistent rigidity. His nonstop banging forms a large component of the film's jarring, dissonant soundtrack, which is matched by the shrill, high-pitched whine of Oskar's voiceover, and by the sine-like scream he emits periodically, a scream so violent and unique it shatters any glass within range.
On its most superficial level, Oskar's decision to remain forever a child is a symbolic escape from the horrors and responsibilities of adulthood that seem so overwhelming from his child's eye vantage point. In this sense, if Oskar is a representative of the people under a developing fascist regime — childlike, ignorant, selfish, oblivious to consequences — then the film's message is obvious. Because Oskar is increasingly a petulant, nasty, self-centered little brat, almost evil in his single-minded insistence on getting his own way. He winds his rotten little path through the horrors that lead up to World War II, and along the way drives Agnes and Jan (and eventually Alfred too) to their deaths, always concerned more with his tin drum and his own contentment than in anything else that's going on around him. He's like a grim little harbinger of death, his drum beating out a funeral march for everyone around him.
And yet, if the symbolism of Oskar's condition is obvious in some ways, Schlöndorff carries the conceit through so rigorously that it ensures that the film will be much stranger, and much more difficult to grasp, than its seemingly straightforward allegorical implications would imply. Ultimately, it remains apparent that the film is an allegory, but what precisely it's allegorizing is rather hopelessly muddled. One of the film's most disturbing components is its treatment of sexuality, particularly once the voyeuristic Oskar, always appearing to be three even once he reaches the age of sixteen, begins developing a crush on Alfred's second wife Maria (Katharina Thalbach). It is, to say the least, profoundly disturbing to see young Oskar in blatantly sexual situations with this lovely young girl. The uneasy sexual charge between them progresses from the bizarre sensuality of the scenes where Oskar licks sugar from his stepmother's outstretched palm, to the even more grotesque scenes where Oskar seemingly performs oral sex on Maria and then crawls under her covers to straddle her. These scenes are disturbing in the context of the film, and even more so from the point of view of child welfare, when one inevitably wonders what the young actor might have thought or felt about all this bizarre simulated sexuality. It's unsettling in ways that stretch well beyond what's onscreen into the imagined conditions of the production itself.
It's also never quite clear how the film's twisted vision of sexuality fits in with its political allegory. The film presents sexuality as irredeemably tangled up in the miserable conditions of life, especially in the scenes between Agnes and Jan, for whom sex seems to be an escape of their own from the rigors of life. There's a joyous, passionate scene between the two of them when they meet for one of their weekly rendezvous, but when Oskar witnesses this coupling, it looks sordid and ugly in his eyes: his child's point of view is warped, distorted, with no real knowledge of adult relationships or adult sexuality. By the same token, Oskar seems ignorant of the political events happening all around him. In the film's best scene, he unwittingly disrupts a Nazi political rally by hiding under the bleachers and tapping out a rhythm on his drum. His drumming throws off the fascists' own band, who soon lose track of their rigid martial marching beat and begin deviating into flights of improvisation and independent playing, various instruments shifting out of tune with the rest of the band until they've all abandoned the march for a freewheeling medley of popular and classical songs. The rally loses its rigidity along with the music: the precisely ordered lines of saluting fascists begin breaking apart as everyone starts to dance and sway in time with the music, at first upholding their outstretched arms as they dance, but soon completely abandoning the rally's purpose and just having fun instead. It's an extraordinary, electrifying scene, a tribute to the hopeful possibility for free-spirited fun and childlike play to overcome intolerance, hatred and militaristic nationalism.
And yet so much of the rest of the film seems dedicated to squashing that very same hope. Elsewhere, Oskar's drumming provides little hope, and he is often monstrous, a hateful little beast who even contemplates stabbing Maria when she becomes pregnant (possibly with his own child). Schlöndorff packs the film with vivid, bracing, often frightening imagery, images that sear into the brain with the quality of a horrifying memory: a fisherman who uses the grisly method of casting a decaying horse's head into the ocean to catch eels; the midget circus troupe who are enlisted by the German Propaganda ministry, and who dress up in tiny Nazi uniforms, hideous doll-like caricatures of fascist officers; the hard-to-watch scenes where Agnes devises the bizarre self-punishment of methodically eating copious quantities of rather sickly-looking fish; and of course Oskar himself, pounding away at his drum with his eyes staring wildly and his mouth open wide in a shattering scream. These images are potent and unforgettable, but the film as a whole is confused and uneven, never quite adding up to more than the sum of its ill-fitting parts.