The Criterion Corner

The Tin Drum

Director: Volker Schlondorff

Year of release: 1979

Running time: 2 hours 43 minutes


Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff's 1979 dark comedy masterpiece The Tin Drum.

It's hard to imagine a film like The Tin Drum being made today. A sprawling, semi-satirical, thematically troubling and altogether hilarious adaptation of Gunter Grass's eponymous novel, Volker Schlondorff's greatest triumph here is the juggling of personal, political, domestic, and historical threads. Condensing the novel's more outlandish vision of German's history from the beginning of the 20th Century to post World War II was a near impossible task, and there's no doubt that as a film. The Tin Drum is unwieldy. But it's this bizarre messiness; told from the perspective of a deranged Peter Pan-esque child, which makes it such a singular achievement.

The most fascinating aspect of the film is how its central character, the never-aging Oskar Matzerath, is meant to personify the tyrannical grip of Nazism, even as he remains a detached observer to historical European events. With that in mind, 12-year-old child actor David Bennett gives one of the most chilling, aggravating, and psychotic performances in cinema history as Oskar; a completely self-centered agent of chaos who believes the entire universe revolves around him. His determination to never grow up locates the pervasive banality of evil at the heart of the Third Reich, with his beloved drum and glass shattering screams emerging as his only identifying traits.

Schlondorff structures his film as a series of elaborate set-pieces ranging from the broadly comic (Oskar tricking his nanny into reading pornographic novels), to the strangely moving (perplexing a Nazi youth orchestra with the sound of that titular drum), and every time he lets out an ear-piercing wail to break windows or wine glasses, the effect is hilariously off-putting. There's also moments of shocking violence, sexual trysts with a 16-year-old mother figure, a roving band of circus midgets, and over-cranked slapstick.

At nearly 3 hours, The Tin Drum is a daunting exercise in satirical nihilism which also makes room for whimsy and magical realism. Grotesque, acidicly funny, meandering, and featuring a truly iconic child performance, it's a film whose controversial reputation (it was at the center of a censorship controversy), lends it a cant-look-away quality. It's also yet another example of the The Criterion Collection's deft powers of curation.