A World Gone Mad Marches to ‘The Tin Drum’

When Oskar is born into the drab and menacing world of prewar Germany, he notes dryly that his first sight was that of a moth flying around a 60-watt light bulb suspended above his mother’s bed. He is not impressed with his new environment.

But as he lies bundled next to his proud mother, she announces that she will give him a tin drum when he turns 3. Hearing that, the infant thinks to himself: “Only the prospect of the tin drum prevented me from forcefully stating my desire to return to the womb.”

“The Tin Drum,” adapted from the critically acclaimed novel by Gunter Grass, is an often quirky look at a society gone mad and a child’s way of coping through incessant drumming and high-pitched screams.

As he grows, Oskar sees the hideousness of many adults in the Nazi era. Fearing that he will one day fall in with that bad crowd, he throws himself down a stairway to stunt his growth. His destiny, he decides, is to become a gnome, play his tin drum and be “an observer.”


Among Director Volker Schlondorff’s memorable characters is Bebra, a dwarf who befriends Oskar at a circus and who later resurfaces as a uniformed Nazi entertainer. Bebra warns Oskar early on that “they are coming. They will hold torchlight processions, build rostrums and fill them.” As it turns out, “they” are the Nazis who loom large and ominous in the boy’s life.

Oskar, played by 11-year-old David Bennent (who himself had stunted growth), makes it his mission to battle the Nazis.

In one skirmish, Oskar goes to a Nazi rally and drums under the bleachers until he breaks the concentration of the Nazi Youth band. In time, Oskar’s drumming causes the band to switch from mechanical-like drumbeats and shrill trumpeting to the “Blue Danube"--a symbolic throwback to more innocent times--and the strident rally turns into a love fest of waltzing Nazis.

“The Tin Drum” is perhaps obsessed with symbolism. But one scene is startling in its forcefulness about the changing of time--a society’s deliberate plunge into a vortex of evil: Oskar’s father introduces a radio to the household. The radio, which now sits atop the piano, brings Hitler’s ranting into their home. Soon the father replaces a nearby painting of Beethoven with a picture of Hitler. It’s a telling scene in which Schlondorff reminds us that stunted growth affects entire nations as well.

“The Tin Drum” (1979), directed by Volker Schlondorff. 142 minutes. Rated R.