Oskar Matzerath is the boy who refuses to grow older. A child of the petite bourgeois in Danzig during the rise of Nazism, he throws himself down the cellar steps, so that he remains at 3 years old; we get his unreliable perspective on the German people during this period. Where ever he goes, he takes with him his tin drum and if anyone dares to remove it from him, he releases a high pitched scream.
I studied Gunter Grass’ THE TIN DRUM in the late eighties in a Modern European Literature and Culture component of my degree. It’s a striking novel of magical realism that caused a scandal in 1958 as it suggested that the German middle class were not victims of Nazism, which was the prevailing post-war attitude, instead Grass mocks them as they were willingly complicit. Hitler appealed to their self-esteem and belief that they should have a sense of superiority over others. I saw the film around the same time I was studying novel at the 051 Cinema and I was immediately drawn to its shocking imagery. I’m sure audiences who first saw UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1929) with its startling depiction of severed eye-balls and ants emerging from stigmatic wounds, may have felt the same sensation that I had in Liverpool when I saw the horse head being pulled from the sea with eels slipping from every orifice: queasy, uneasy and disturbed. Despite its horrific imagery, it was the sexual content fell foul of some countries’ obscenity laws. The scene where Oskar goes down on his nanny ‘mother-figure’ was cut in some territories.
There have been many changes since the book’s release. Germany is now unified and Grass has made the startling revelation that during the war he was conscripted to the Waffen-SS (PEELING THE ONION (2006)), so the story begins to have a different complexion. Is the perspective of Oskar the perspective of a guilty conscious?
In 2012 a new version of the film was released on blu-ray that restored 20 minutes that were previously lost. Schlondorff agreed to cuts in 1979 which were based upon ‘length’ rather than taste, as the distributors wanted to ensure that the film could be shown in cinemas twice a night. The cut version of the film went on to win awards in Europe and the Academy Award in America, so the director agreed to never mention that the film was effectively incomplete.
The processing labs contacted to say that the missing footage had been discovered during a clear out. He led the project to put the missing scenes back in place. It was a painstaking process that was made more difficult due to the soundtrack being missing from the reels of film. He had to bring together the actors to dub the dialogue over the images. Of course David Bennent was twelve years old when he gave his mesmerising performance as Oskar, he is now in his forties, so his voice had to be remastered to fit. That said, its impossible to see the joins as the matching of the old footage with the new is seamless.
Most of the additions add depth to the characters and the relationships and explain some of the complexities of the family arrangements. Some of the additions are more significant than others; the motivations for Greff’s suicide are more explicitly explained, for example.
One early additional scene deserves special mention as it changes the context of Oskar’s voiceover narration. The baker’s wife and Oskar’s mother are telling him a bedtime story about Rasputin when he pulls drapes aside to reveal the mad monk dancing with large, naked women. Oskar turns to the camera as the orgy takes place behind and stares, unblinking, towards the audience:
“They will say: ‘In which narrow world the young man had to train up himself!’ But while my poor Mama and Gretchen Scheffler are reading Rasputin again and again, I discovered Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Die Wahlverwandtschaften. And so I grew, if not from without, but from within, torn between Rasputin and Goethe, until I created one book from the two. So that every demonic page was followed by an enlightened one. As it is in life.”
It’s a strange moment, but important as it ‘grounds’ Oskar as the narrator and his relationship with the audience and adds to the sense of displacement.
Is the film better with the additions? No, but it feels different, enhanced with the extra depth to the characters and their motivations. I have always thought that this is one of the films that make me passionate about cinema. There is something uniquely engaging, exciting and disturbing about the film. It’s a film about the perception of history and the mutability of memory, so it is appropriate that it should change, shift and adapt so that it can charm, shock and enlighten future audiences.
- Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe Von Trotha, 1975, Germany. (happyslackerbdb.wordpress.com)
- Nazi Reich Lives on in `Tin Drum,’ Memoirs, Diaries – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)