Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum was published in 1959, and for the following two decades it hovered near the top of any sane person’s list of unadaptable novels. Its protagonist, Oskar Matzerath, deliberately stops growing at the age of 3, spending his entire adolescence and much of his young adulthood as a toddler, albeit one with highly developed mental capacities (which he possessed from birth). He can shatter glass with a piercing shriek, and carries the titular drum with him wherever he goes, beating out rhythms that influence others’ behavior. On top of all that, he’s a highly unreliable narrator who’s composing his memoirs from a mental hospital. Nonetheless, in 1979 German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff accepted the challenge, and received both the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the foreign-language film Oscar for his trouble, thereby demonstrating that even the most seemingly difficult book can be rendered magnificently cinematic with a little ingenuity.
That’s the party line, at any rate. In truth, Schlöndorff's Tin Drum, like most adaptations of great literature, serves mostly as a fascinating but superficial gloss on material that just doesn’t lend itself well to visual storytelling. Oskar’s decision not to grow up isn’t a charming attempt to maintain his childhood innocence (as he claims), but a fundamentally selfish abdication of responsibility; it takes a while, especially watching the movie version, to realize that he’s meant to represent the tyranny of Nazism—his drum symbolically martial, his glass-breaking trick a foreshadowing of Kristallnacht. Unlike Hitler, however, Oskar doesn’t actually do anything. He’s a strictly passive observer of historical events, and while the film occasionally provides some of his twisted thoughts via voiceover narration, it’s forced to dispense with the vast majority of the character’s interior monologue, which means dispensing with much of the book’s genius.
Fortunately, Schlöndorff stumbled onto an amazing kid to play Oskar, and his thousand-yard stare does a reasonable job of filling the gaps. Actually casting a 3-year-old would have been impossible, but David Bennent, who was 12 when the movie was shot but looks significantly younger (he apparently suffered from a medical condition that temporarily stunted his growth), adroitly captures a 3-year-old’s solipsistic conviction that the entire world is his personal playground. Equally impressive is Angela Winkler, who’d previously played the title role in Schlöndorff's terrific The Lost Honor Of Katherina Blum, as Oskar’s troubled mother, who’s too busy carrying on an affair with a Polish cousin to give her son the loving attention he needs. Scene by scene, the movie works beautifully… but it’s nearly three hours long (this Criterion edition restores about 20 minutes of footage that was cut to meet a contractual running-time agreement), and eventually the absence of either conventional drama or Oskar’s warped musings makes it feel like a grim pageant. Watching a little kid indifferently watch the rise of the Third Reich only yields so much insight. After a while, you kinda just want to smack him.
Key features: Schlöndorff sits down for a brand-new hourlong interview, speaking very articulately (in English) about the challenges of adapting Grass’ novel, and film scholar Timothy Corrigan spends a brisk 20 minutes placing the movie in the context of the ’70s German New Wave. But no supplement addresses the story’s setting: a region of Poland that was then called the Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk). Reading the Wikipedia entry on Danzig beforehand will help enormously in understanding the story’s political ramifications—especially regarding repeated references to Kashubians, which one might otherwise mistakenly assume to be just somebody’s surname. The movie assumes that viewers know this stuff and provides very little context.