Blu Review: The Tin Drum (1979)
Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Original aspect ratio: 1.66:1
German: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Editor’s Notes: The Tin Drum released on Blu Ray from Criterion on January 15th, 2013.
We are all, in a statement that’s as meagerly abstruse as it is edifying, creatures of limitation: slaves to genetic circumstance and cultural bent, the uniquely faulty products of lineage, timing, nature, and chance. And yet, we tend to romanticize such concessions, oftentimes spinning our origin stories as would any notable fabulist, tethering our most identifiable traits to cutesy, anecdotal quirks whilst ignoring the broader, and frankly unflattering, circumscriptions we also bear. The Tin Drum is a work awash with likeminded genealogical and ecological concerns,of both obvious and latent design. As the film opens we meet our protagonist, Oskar (David Bennent), cheekily narrating the events leading to his own existence: he begins with an impish tale of his mother’s conception and carries us through a gonzo account of his own nativity. These recollections – and the gossamer subjectivity through which they’re filtered – do well in evincing the material’s antecedental interest and even, on a more individual level, expose the manufactured wonderment often used in describing oneself. (Oskar, for instance, believes he’s the progeny of three people, a “trinity” formed by his actual father (Daniel Olbrychski), a cuckold (Mario Adorf), and his mother (Angela Winkler).)
…the children’s world of low angles and legs becomes a vision of discovery and awe while the antagonistic adult perspective is linked, in tidy monotony, to lust and sexuality.
It’s clear, though, from his in vivo visage – which, the film’s fantasy elements notwithstanding, is likely either bluster or retroactive emending – that Oskar feels something of contempt for the unknown world, and the POV scene of it being thrust upon him (i.e. his birth) is cinematically conveyed as a horror film mimesis. Consequent happenings are sketched out with less formally felt subjectivity, but still focus around the periods of cognitive and sensorial (dis)orientation we associate with one’s earlier years; the children’s world of low angles and legs becomes a vision of discovery and awe while the antagonistic adult perspectiveis linked, in tidy monotony, to lust and sexuality. And so it’s decided on his third birthday that Oskar, in an act of pretentious self-ennoblement, will stop growing up, favoring youthful incapacity to aged boorishness. He cleaves the eponymous percussional toy he received on that same day as if it’s more appendage than accessory, and shrieks to glass-shattering octaves when authority figures attempt sever it from his grasp.Through such vocal protests, Oskar’s voice literally becomes a weapon, less for ideological reasons – of which he has but conceals – than sheer visceral potential.
The motives behind the character’s self-appointed arrested development are of course emblematic, though the condition on the whole is desultorily codified. Schlöndorffmay juxtaposes Oskar’s defiance against his Danzig milieu’s bubbling Nazism, but the latter aspect is only introduced, on any meaningful level, after he’s made the conscious leap to eschew adulthood; the renunciation fails as nationalist protest. Rather, it’s more fitting that his period of stagnancy is a projection of German culture – and especially its cinema – as artists and artistic movements alike were forced to reinvent themselves following an aphotic wartime era. Just as Oskar seems frozen in an ever-progressing world, so too did a country whose growth was stinted by the echoes of its own perpetrated horrors. Thus, the principal could, in effect, be an avatar for German art, an incarnation of expression that can only be cultivated – or should only be cultivated? – under fertile sociocultural conditions. There’s even a point in the film where a fellow little person, Bebra (Fritz Hakl), bluntly forewarns Oskar of being complicit in the face of fascism (that is, being shaped by the will of others), saying, “Our kind must perform and run the show, or the others will run us.” If we’re to accept this Oskar-to-art parallel, such a statement can naturally be read as a neat allusion to the likes of Goebbels and Riefenstahl, scoundrels who regrettably redirected the course of the country’s artisan culture throughout the wartime period; this can’t, however, be extrapolated much farther than comparative novelty. Worse still are the film’s willful conflations of voyeurism, victimization, despotism, and perversity, which tend to both blur moral boundaries and trivialize the atrocities named as national policy; reflection on true human suffering is lost.
In the 163 odd minutes of The Tin Drum, oppression is hardly ever enacted on the body. Establishments and symbols become the visible, on-screen targets, and buildings come to crumble and icons come to burn. The result is tragedy seen through an almost pop-art sensibility, imagery that betrays any sense of true protest or disgust on the part of Oskar. And then there’s the issue or rape, of men constantly exploiting the sexual vulnerabilities of women without any ties – ties that would be apropos to the picture’s running themes of ancestry and intergenerational identity– to the barbarity of our forebears either human or artistic. What we have instead is a counterfeit morality, a code represented through faux-Brechtian plays on the viewer/participant dynamic of sex within the film. While Schlöndorff may be inverting the conception of public and private spheres (Oskar often plays witness to groping and grindingthat we audience members, conversely, are meant to be shown), he does so without any real ideological scaffolding, and too often tips his cap by way of obnoxious visual innuendo: phallic fingers being sucked on, a cherry necklace held in center frame above a pair of breasts, saliva being posited as a stand-in for other bodily fluids.
What we have instead is a counterfeit morality, a code represented through faux-Brechtian plays on the viewer/participant dynamic of sex within the film.
But like much of the film, these transgressions are tied closest to the idea of boundaries, in particular those that separate the ostensible from the actual. If only Schlöndorff could have gone to the trouble of braiding these conceptual threads rather than lying solely on their natural contrasts. The Tin Drum ultimately comes to read as a dissemination of image and ideology through which recurrence – of Christian imagery and crosses, of unions traditional and spontaneous, of glass panes and other partitions of supposed privacy, of red-and-white lacquered toy instruments, and of blue eyes and other genetic traits – passes for something exegetic. There are select scenes that demonstrate an atypical apprehension for the power of measured evocation, such as when Oskar subverts the authoritarian rigidity of a Nazi demonstration by drumming purposefully out of step –defiance acts as a catalyst toward individuality. But too often Schlöndorff becomes spellbound by simulant devices and defies the story’s ties to lineage, not seeing that inclusivity isn’t the same as analysis, or moreover, understanding.
Overall, the visual depiction of The Tin Drum is appropriately supple; a representation that conforms to the various tonal shifts granted by shifts to-and-away-from Oskar’s perspectivist tints. Other than a few scenes (the funeral dinner comes to mind) that appear strobe-like and a bit washed out, the image quality usually maintains a strong color reproduction even when adapting to the film’s various environmental, and accordingly chromatic, demands. The DTS-HD Master 5.1 was approved by the director himself, meaning, if nothing else, it fulfills his authorial vision. From a technical standpoint, however, this is an impressive release from Criterion.
Supplemental material is expectedly choice, even if it surprisingly deviates from Criterion’s original release of the work. Remaining extras include an interview with Schlöndorff – though it comes at the expense of a now-omitted commentary track – a featurette with Timothy Corrigan in which he says “thematics” more than once, brief interviews with the cast that say more about themselves than the film, and a piece that contrasts the words of novelist Günter Grass with its filmic counterpart. As per my usual, I blandly prefer the clinical to the personal in terms of extra features, though I feel this release is amiable in its appeals to such seemingly combative sensibilities.