The Tin Drum is a story of Europe’s nasty history in the first half of the 20th Century and, like that tortured history, the film features an intoxicating mixture of the profound and the profane. Rewarded in 1979 with an Oscar and the Palme d’Or, Volker Schlöndorff’s satiric epic manages to reduce WWII’s enormous struggles to simple, precisely stated metaphors that entrance, shock and mystify. Schlöndorff’s intent is not to increase viewers’ historical understanding of that dark period, but to serve up its murky vicissitudes with a freakish lingua franca that simultaneously amuses and repulses; that seduces while it brutalizes.
Based on a sprawling 1959 novel by Günter Grass, The Tin Drum is set in Danzig, a nominally autonomous region on the Baltic coast established in 1920 by the Treaty of Versailles. The story’s chief concern is the life and times of Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent), born in 1925. Oskar is an exceedingly bright and sensitive child who closely observes the dank and decaying world around him; his only diversion a toy drum given to him by his gentle mother Agnes (Angela Winkler). Disappointed by the hypocrisy of adults, on his third birthday Oskar decides to perpetually remain a child and simply stop growing. He stages an accident to accomplish this goal, and as the years pass and his world is threatened by a new, jack-booted malevolence, Oskar’s tiny form is often found at the epicenter of historic events. In many ways, Oskar is Eastern Europe’s twisted answer to Forrest Gump.