Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Marching to the Beat: The Tin Drum TOERIFC's February Selection

Oskar Matzerath is a phantom. From the age of three until his presumed father dies, he lives his life in the third person. He refers to himself as "Oskar" rather than "I" or "me" and his life parallels this grammatical conceit. Having forcibly stunted his own growth at the age of three he has chosen to see the world through the eyes of a child, not having to face the responsibilities of adulthood. It is a plan doomed to failure as physical growth does nothing to halt his intellectual or emotional growth. By the time he has seen his father die, shot to death by Russians at the end of the European hostilities in World War II, he is ready to grow again but by now it's too late. The damage is done.

There has been so much written about The Tin Drum, the novel and the film and about its author Günter Grass that I find myself challenged in writing this post. Because the story is told using elements of magical realism, fable and allegory many readers and viewers feel the need to assemble a map and legend with which to navigate the story. At each proper highway marker the proper symbol is assigned and the characters are relegated to meaninglessness outside of their historical or moral representation. For me, an allegory only works if it works on its own as a story first.

When I watched Pan's Labyrinth and No Country for Old Men for the first time upon their release I was aware that both stories could be interpreted any number of ways and that even the reality of certain characters was in question and most certainly almost all of the characters in both movies could easily stand in as symbols for ideas taking them beyond the literal. But I also knew that both movies worked as straightforward stories as well. If one chose to take them literally, at face value, one would still have a well-told story presented to them. Is the same true of The Tin Drum? In the opinion of this viewer, yes and no. Yes, it does tell a story but without the allegory, the story is too episodic, too much without momentum or clear meaning. Approaching this story literally will leave some viewers cold. And confused. Let's start at the beginning.

The Tin Drum is directed by Volker Schlöndorff with a confident and bold visual style throughout. He captures and uses the piercing gaze of David Bennent as Oskar to great effect, most notably in his first appearance, in the womb of his mother. The shot of Oskar in the womb as the fully developed boy-man we will see throughout the film is a brilliant visual touch that immediately signals an other worldliness about the character of Oskar.

Schlöndorff then brings him into the world using a P.O.V. shot (point of view) of Oskar emerging in the delivery room and pondering his surroundings. Overhearing his mother state that he will receive a tin drum on his third birthday is the only thing that keeps him from immediately retreating back to the womb. Well almost the only thing. They have also cut the umbilical chord.

On his third birthday he does indeed receive his tin drum and watching the bickering hypocritical world of adults around him decides he will stop growing at once. He hurtles himself down the cellar steps and never grows again. Physically, that is. Intellectually he progresses just like anyone else. He also discovers when threatened with the loss of his beloved drum that his scream can shatter glass. And all of this takes place in post World War I Germany as that country and the world hears the ever growing drumbeat of Nazism, a call to arms that make its intentions clear on Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, November 9, 1938. In fact, it is shortly after we see Oskar, with his friends, drumming and marching, breaking glass in public for the first time (Oskar shatters a street lamp) that we the Nazis literally come around the corner, also drumming, also marching.

After this the story does not provide the literal viewer with much more than a general coming of age tale set during wartime. Oskar reaches puberty and engages in oral sex with his first love. As he grows older still he leaves home to tour with a group of performing Little People who entertain the Nazi troops on the front lines. There he meets his second love and on the shores of Normandy watches her die in a hail of fire and smoke. He returns home, believes his first love's son is his own (and it may well be as he and his father have both made love to her) and gives him a tin drum for his third birthday. He would like his son, Kurt, to stop growing too but Kurt does not. Eventually the war is lost, he sees his father killed, suffers a brain injury and is carted off (again literally) to a sanitarium. The end.

One persistent problem of the film is that it appears to assume one has read the book. In the novel, Oskar narrates from the sanitarium as he writes his memoirs. By the end of his story he has feigned insanity to enter the asylum, once again avoiding the hard choices of life. In the movie, most viewers unfamiliar with the book will not even know he is going to a sanitarium at the end, or that he hasn't really suffered any neurological damage. I have no problem with characters being left out, that is understandable in any adaptation of a lengthy novel but why Schlöndorff chose to make the location of Oskar's narration unknown is a mystery. It certainly would have made the ending clearer.

Schlöndorff also seems unsure if he wants to approach the allegory as a comedic fable or a serious one. While it's true the book contains many absurdities and elements of magical realism not present in the film (in the book, for example, the Germans go to underground cafes that serve large cut onions, which force them to cry, since they are too shell shocked to release emotion on their own) it employs the language of film unavailable to the book. Some scenes are run at a faster frames-per-second rate to emulate a silent film, or more specifically, silent comedy. And Schlöndorff uses vibrant colors and brightly lit scenes throughout, betraying any sense of impending doom. Even during the death of Oskar's second love in Normandy, the sun is shining and the environment inviting. Going for a cup of coffee doesn't seem that crazy after all.

In a way, Schlöndorff has such a good eye for visual set-ups that the movie's realism, which he favored over it's fantastical elements and says so in the commentary track, becomes secondary to the paintings he wants to put before our eyes. But those paintings do live long in the mind: The horse head on the beach with the eels running out of it. Oskar in the womb. Bebra's performing troupe having a picnic on top of a pillbox on the shores of Normandy. Oskar's mother consuming raw fish until it kills her. Visually, Schlöndorff has produced a striking film. Narratively, he has produced a muddle.

But all of this makes it sound as if I do not like the film and nothing could be further from the truth. I found The Tin Drum to be quite captivating at times. It's true, I would've preferred a richer narrative than the episodic fleeting moments the viewer is presented with and do believe it works better for a viewer familiar with the book, but it's images and characters pulled me in and kept me engaged. While I feel it works best as an allegory, I don't believe the allegory is so blunt as to keep the movie from working on its own. One could take the story of Oskar as literal, a boy refusing to grow up and engage in the complicated paradigms of the adult world or one could take it as an allegory for the German people ignoring reality around them (they chose to stop growing, i.e., make adult decisions and choices) until after the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed at which time they needed to start growing again. That's the basic idea put forth by the author Günter Grass with the novel and he spent decades hammering the point home in public speeches, interviews and lectures. The German people had stunted their growth, refused to take part in the adult world of taking responsible action and a madman and his band of thugs sent millions to their deaths as a result. Grass did not hold back from demanding there be shame, remorse and accounting.

Then in 2006 it was revealed he had been a conscripted member of the Waffen-SS. Worse than that, though less reported, he had tried to volunteer for U-Boat duty at the age of 15. The conscription into the Waffen-SS could be written off since he had no choice in the matter, but eager to volunteer at fifteen? That couldn't be written off so easily. Many, including Christopher Hitchens, called him a hypocrite and a fraud while others, like writer John Irving, hailed him as a hero.

As with all things the truth lies somewhere in between. Had Grass revealed the truth of his past from the beginning he would have had, to my mind, an even higher moral authority from which to speak. He could demand accounting and remorse because he had been a part of it and by revealing his involvement had fully accounted and taken responsibilities for his actions. But he didn't. He kept it a secret until 2006, until after the Nobel Prize, until almost fifty years after the publication of the novel. Still, as John Irving asks, why should that invalidate the ideas put forth in the novel? If someone preaches against the horrors of slavery and is then discovered to have once been a slave owner, does that invalidate what they said about slavery? It may make them appear hypocritical, but it certainly doesn't invalidate their view that slavery is wrong.

And this is just one more roadblock to a full appreciation of the book and movie. The movie has become infamous due to Grass' conscription and obscenity charges levelled against it in Oklahoma, something I don't care to discuss but felt I should mention it to make a point. These things have become The Tin Drum as much as the story itself. Audiences now view it through the filter of a once conscripted hypocrite or the accusations of child pornography. Presenting its story in allegorical form complicates matters more. Is the average modern viewer (no one here included) knowledgeable enough about the Treaty of Versailles and the conditions forced on Germany after World War I to understand the tension that slowly mounted around the Polish Post Office in Danzig? Are they aware of the accusations of complicity levelled against the German people in the rise of Adolph Hitler that Oskar's refusal to grow up stands in for as a metaphor? What about Oskar's ability to affect change as he disrupts the Nazi rally and turns it into a waltz? After he realizes he can affect change if he tries, he abandons any notions of doing so and instead begins entertaining the troops. He could have done something, but didn't. What about the Jewish toymaker? What are Grass and Schlöndorff going for with his death? Does he stand in for all the Jews slaughtered? Is being killed in his office irony? Was supplying the drums to Oskar intended to be another ironic statement on the perceptions of Anti-Semites that the Jews of Germany passively enabled the Nazis? Finally, does Oskar have any remorse? Does he learn anything? He loses his true love and soon after is smiling as he brings a tin drum to his son, blissfully encouraging the same avoidance of life in his son that has brought him heartache and confusion.

There are no definite answers to any of those questions and as long as people examine history in an effort to understand it there never will be. It's all interpretation. It's all reflection. Meaning is obscured by more recent events. Facts are obscured by interpretation. In the end the drumbeat of history continues unabated, indifferent to our allegories and parables and road maps. The Tin Drum tries to make sense of World War II, Nazism and the Holocaust by presenting its tale through the eyes of a disaffected narrator at odds with the society around him. It may succeed in this, it may not. Or it may be marching to the beat of a drum that only it can hear.