Because the first Volker Schlondörff film I ever saw was 2000’s The Legend of Rita, he maintains a reputation in my subconscious as a chiefly political, formalistically straightforward filmmaker. Even though I’ve seen more of his work since, it remains a surprise when I see something at outré as 1979’s The Tin Drum. Yet despite the film’s compelling and sometimes unsettling outlandishness, one part of my first impression holds true. It is without a doubt a political film.
Born in Germany in 1924, our protagonist Oskar immediately possesses the full, conscious thought of an adult human. At the age of three, when he receives as a present the titular instrument, he decides he doesn’t like the world of the grown and so forces himself to cease aging physically. The film follows the next 18 years as he watches his parents engage in affairs and suffer misfortunes, undergoes a sexual awakening of his own and witnesses the rise and fall of the Third Reich.
By keeping his protagonist so young, Schlondörff (working with two other credited writers to adapt Günter Grass’ novel) allows him to witness and comment on the seismic political shifts of his homeland without being forced to choose a side. Yet there is an argument to be made that he does so anyway. The film is as much about art as politics. More specifically, it’s about the places where the two overlap. With his drum and innocent boy’s visage, Oskar is the pure-hearted artist, existing only to express himself. Still, the film wonders if the sanctity of art is enough to inoculate the artist from the pragmatic meanings of his choices. Is self-expression unimpeachable even when its patrons are monsters?
However, despite its heady academic goals, the film is also replete with abstract images and visual metaphors. There is magical realism in the way that Oskar possesses the ability to shatter glass with his voice. But the most commendable and challenging aspect is the juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane. There is beauty, such as the shot of nuns ascending to heaven after having been gunned down by Nazi soldiers. And there is a great deal of ugliness too. A scene in which a man fishing on the beach reels in to shore a horse’s head crawling with eels is one of the most disgusting sequences ever committed to film.