A battlefield near Danzig, 1899. A woman is sitting peeling potatoes. A man appears on the horizon, pursued by armed police. He looks desperately at the woman, who eventually lets him hide under her dress. The police arrive, ask after their prey and move on. This is the prelude, the story of the conception of Oskar’s mother.
Oskar is blond, has sharp blue, piercing eyes and looks like one of those Picasso paintings of a child, whose face is much older than the rest of his body. Wherever he goes, he carries with him a red and white tin drum. He is also able to scream at such a pitch that he can smash glass. When he is three, Oskar throws himself downstairs and refuses to get any older.
The whole story takes place in the background of the rise of the Nazis. Danzig is nominally a free city independent of neighbouring Germany and Poland and has a mixed population. As the Nazis gain power, synagogues are burned and partisan groups start to form, leading to shootouts. At one stage, Oskar uses his drum to change the rhythm of a Nazi military march to the Blue Danube.
Oskar visits a circus where he finds a troupe of performing dwarf clowns who are on his wavelength. Later on in the film he is going to meet up with the dwarves and joins the circus as a glass shatterer. He starts an affair with Roswitha, one of the dwarves, but she is killed in the crossfire between Nazi and Allied troops.
Roswitha is not Oskar’s first sexual partner and somehow their relationship seems plausible. I’m not sure how much this is because Roswitha is a dwarf and thus looks something like Oskar. But I was completely weirded out by the earlier relationship between Oskar and the 16-year old Maria. Remember, Oskar is still inhabiting the body of a 3-year old (though actor David Bennent was 11 at the time).
Oskar and Maria share a bed, and he apparently performs oral sex on her under the covers. He then sleeps with her, and then when she is sleeping with her older lover, Alfred Oskar bursts into the room causing Alfred to ejaculate. This means that it is unclear whether the subsequent baby, Kurt is Oskar’s or Alfred’s.
Alongside the general weirdness of a 3-year old boy sleeping with a 16-year old girl, possibly making her pregnant, said girl is played by Katharina Thalbach, then a 24-year old actress towards the start of her career, but now a Grande Dame of German stage and screen. Think of a much more cheeky Judi Dench. Now I know that this shouldn’t make a difference but somehow it does.
So, what are we to make of it all? To start off with, I think we can make too much of a meal of the metaphor of Oskar shattering glass and refusing to grow up. Is he Danzig under Nazi control? Is he the Nazis themselves? You know, I don’t think it matters too much and I don’t really care. This is one of the main differences between novels and films. Over the course of a novel you have the time to pause and think about such things. During a film, you don’t really have the time to stop and consider.
So, there is much here that doesn’t make immediate sense, and you may be able to forge into a more coherent whole if you write up what you’ve just seen, but to be honest, life’s too short. It doesn’t matter that parts of the film doesn’t make obvious sense, and it occasionally stumbles from one deranged scene to the next. This is just what it is.
This is a sprawling chaotic mess of a film, but not in a bad sense. As Oskar, Bennent is scarily compelling, and it makes you wonder why he didn’t become way more successful (using Wikipedia so you don’t have to, he’s been in the odd film, including Legend with Tom Cruise and Spike Lee’s She Hate Me, but has only made 6 films in the 40+ years since The Thin Drum).
Maybe it’s a difficult film to like because Oskar simply isn’t a nice character – there’s no hero for you to identify with. For most of the time he’s a petulant malevolent brat, with a Violet Elizabeth Bott strategy for personal relations. If you don’t let him have his way, he’ll just scream until glass shatters. So, if you’re looking for comfort, this may not be the film for you. But if you’re looking for something to typify a year when everything seems to have gone mad, this might just be a film for 2020.