Having won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 1979, The Tin Drum went on to achieve an extra jolt of fame — or notoriety perhaps — when it was banned in Oklahoma on the grounds of indecency (a ruling that was subsequently overturned). It’s not hard to see either point of view (though there’s an inherent irony in seeing a film banned that condemns the rise of Nazism) because this is a complex, very difficult film. It’s a film that is impossible not to admire, while being one that is very difficult to like. Technically and stylistically, The Tin Drum is an astounding work. Thematically, it strives for an importance it only sometimes achieves (and even then it may partly be a case of simply knowing what director Volker Schlondorff is after).
Based on a famous novel by Gunther Grass, it tells the story of a young boy, Oskar (David Bennett), who only opts to stay out of the womb the moment he’s born by the promise of a tin drum on his third birthday. Coincidentally, it’s on his third birthday that Oskar opts to stop growing, as a kind of protest over the unseemly behavior of the adults around him (whether or not a fall down the stairs enters into this is never clearly stated), and it is through his eyes and his narration that we see the rest of the film.
What we see is neither pretty, nor pleasant — and it isn’t meant to be. But the film can’t get away from the fact that its narrator/”hero” is both creepy (he looks like something out of Children of the Damned (1963)) and repellently cold-blooded, giving the film an off-putting quality. Brilliant set-pieces and unbridled cinematic creativity don’t quite compensate for the overall feeling, but it’s as fascinating as it is unpleasant.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke