Gunter Grass' 'The Tin Drum' a piercing work of literature and film

1979 film adaptation of Gunter Grass' novel, 'The Tin Drum,' won the Oscar for foreign language film

In his long and varied career Günter Grass worked as a novelist, poet, essayist, playwright, graphic artist, sculptor, public intellectual and social critic. Grass, who died Monday at age 87, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999 but is most widely known for his debut novel, “The Tin Drum,” published in 1959.

The book was adapted into a 1979 movie directed by Volker Schlöndorff with a screenplay credited to Schlöndorff, Jean-Claude Carriere, Franz Seitz and Grass. The film adaptation of “The Tin Drum” shared the Palm d’Or with “Apocalypse Now” at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival and was the first German film to win the Academy Award for foreign language film. It was re-released in a longer director’s cut in 2010.

A mix of absurdism and dark allegory, the story of “The Tin Drum” follows a young boy named Oskar who decides not to grow up (in a startling performance by the young David Bennent) and his adventures through the era of the Nazi regime.

In an interview published in 1991 in the Paris Review, Grass was asked his opinion of the film.

“Schlöndorff made a good film, even though he didn’t follow the literary form of the book,” Grass responded. “Perhaps that was necessary, because the point of view of Oskar — who tells his story by constantly jumping from one time period to another — would make a very complicated film. Schlöndorff did something very simple. He just tells the story on one line. There are, of course, whole sections that Schlöndorff cut from the movie version. I miss some of those.”

Noting specifically that he felt Schlöndorff’s Protestant background meant he didn’t have much feeling for the story’s Catholic elements, Grass added, “But this is one small detail. Altogether, and with the help of the young boy who played Oskar, I think it’s a good film.”

Controversy long followed the film, as it did throughout Grass’ life. Due to scenes dealing with sex among underage characters, the film became embroiled over the years in local censorship disputes. 

Grass himself continued to be a controversial figure. In his 2006 memoir "Peeling the Onion" he revealed that during World War II he had been a member of the Nazis' notorious Waffen-SS unit. In 2012 Grass published a poem critical of Israel’s nuclear weapons policies.

Writing about “The Tin Drum” in 1980, Los Angeles Times critic-at-large Charles Champlin declared that “‘The Tin Drum’ is, in fact, almost everything anybody could ask a film to be. It is strikingly original and continuously surprising, compliments of the novelist, whose large and densely packed book has been translated to the screen with a fidelity that is astonishing given the problems it set.”

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