The Tin Drum might be the best film ever made about children; it's certainly the most alarming. Where most cinematic looks backwards are clouded by sentiment and nostalgia, Drum has the courage to acknowledge that what adults perceive as innocence is rarely anything other than a lack of civility, unguided by morality and unrestrained by social conditioning. Many of the things that Oskar (David Bennent) does here are shocking (it's not for nothing that this film was nearly banned in the state of Oklahoma), and we, as adults, recognize that they are wrong. But even more discomforting is the way they reflect the world he was born into, a grotesque parody of the Nazi regime embraced by his parents and his nation. Like all children, he imitates his parents even when he rejects them, but Oscar's voice does more than repeat what he has heard; it provides a piercing look into the hypocrisy of adulthood itself, and a shrieking accusation at its crimes.
At the time of his birth, Oscar is already sentient and quite articulate, narrating the event with a detached candor that he carries on throughout the film. Even at that point, he is a witness; to a host of bizarre images, to his mother (Angela Winkler) carrying on Jan Bronski (Daniel Olnrychski) behind his father Alfred's back (Mario Adorf), to the steady rise of Nazism, lingering insistently at the edge of the frame. Unable to take hold of his own destiny, Oscar instead makes noise by beating his drum and screaming at a pitch voluble enough to break glass, before finally throwing himself down a flight of stairs, stunting his growth at the age of three. As he still looks young, the people around him treat him as such, and he spends the next several decades living as a toddler while the world around him descends into fascism.
It's what he does as a teenager (so to speak) that has given the film such a notorious reputation. While under the care of his babysitter Maria (Katharina Thalbach), he develops a sexual relationship with her that eventually produces a child. Their coupling is indeed unsettling to watch, but it's entirely faithful to the way that young people interact with each other. Though he is perceived as an innocent, he is possessed of the same curiosities and cruelties that shadow their lives, and is generally allowed to act them out without serious repercussion due to his age. If anything, the world of children is even less forgiving than that of their parents (at one point, Oscar's classmates gang up on him and force him to drink urine), and more given over to the kind of id that maturity refines. If his and Maria's indiscretions are any indication (as opposed to those on the part of all three of his parents), corruption is not so much learned with worldliness so much as made more polite by it.
Less controversial (for whatever reason, especially given the later revelation of author Gunter Grass's childhood involvement with the SS) is Oscar's ultimate acceptance of Nazism, and concurrent donning of the swastika. Troubling, but perhaps it was inevitable given the immense tidal flow of history. Since Oscar has so cut himself off from the adult world, he has proven totally incapable of controlling it, or preventing its worst atrocities from being realized. This may be read as a metaphor for the German people in the war years, but it finds more universal resonance with those ambivalent about coming of age, even if the consequences are rarely this dire. Oscar may be the only one who wills himself into infantilism, but he’s far from the only one that refuses to grow up.
The disc features a high-definition digital transfer and remastered 5.1 surround soundtrack, an interview with Schlöndorff, an interview with film scholar Timothy Corrigan, a German audio recording of Günter Grass reading from his novel, some television interview excerpts featuring Schlöndorff, Grass, actors David Bennent and Mario Adorf, and cowriter Jean-Claude Carrière, a trailer, and a new English subtitle translation. There's also the customary booklet, with an essay by Geoffrey Macnab and a statement by author Grass on the adaptation.
"The Tin Drum (The Criterion Collection)" is on sale January 15, 2013 and is rated R. Drama. Directed by Volker Schlondorff. Written by Volker Schlöndorff, Jean-Claude Carrière, Franz Seitz. Starring Daniel Olbrychski, David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler, Katharina Thalbach.