THE TIN DRUM (CRITERION) – Blu-ray review

[NOTE: The following review was written for Criterion’s 2004 SD release of “The Tin Drum” . That release included the 142 minute theatrical release of the film which, at the time, was the only one known to the public. However, director Volker Schlondorff had originally assembled a 163 minute cut before being forced to pare it down by United  Artists. Schlondorff never mentioned the original cut and had no plans to restore it until a few years ago when he was contacted by a film laboratory that was preparing to dispose of old stock. They informed him they still had the excised footage. Schlondorff decided to reassemble the scenes according the original script and the result is the 163 minute cut which is now the only version included on this 2013 Blu-ray release of the film. More information below.]

Adapting Gunter Grass’s infamous 1959 novel “The Tin Drum” was a daunting task for any filmmaker. Many big names were mentioned over the years, including Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda, but it wasn’t until nearly twenty years after the book was published, when New German director Volker Schlondorff took up the mantle, that Grass felt comfortable trusting his vision to someone else. Grass’s novel had already stirred a firestorm of controversy for its scathing critique of German society and its perceived pornographic indulgences. Schlondorff’s film met with a similar fate.

“The Tin Drum” tells the story of Oskar Matzerath, a young man born on the border between Poland and Germany in the mid-1920s. At the age of three, Oskar is disgusted by what he sees of the corrupt, hypocritical adult world and makes an abrupt and starling decision; he will stop growing up and remain a three year old in perpetuity. Even though the film spans two decades and Oskar becomes an adult, he retains the appearance (though not the mind) of a little boy who just wanders the streets beating endlessly on the tin drum his mother gave him on his third birthday.

As if Oskar’s refusal to grow wasn’t strange enough, he also learns he has a strange power. When he screams, he can shatter glass, whether it’s a small drinking glass or entire sets of window panes across the street. Needless to say, Oskar is a strange young man who never quite finds a way to fit in with the people around him, particularly not in a country rapidly falling under the spell of a Nazi ideology which espouses physical perfection. Oskar’s best defense is to cling desperately to childhood, avoiding any responsibility for the horrors taking place around him.

One of the primary challenges in adapting the novel was to find someone to play Oskar. It’s easy to write about a boy who decides to stop aging, much harder to show it. At first, Schlondorff thought he had to cast an adult dwarf actor, but soon realized he needed a child. But what child actor could possibly match the part? Enter the remarkable David Bennent. Bennent was 11 years old during shooting but, much like Oskar, had not grown normally. He still had the body of a six year old though with the penetrating eyes of an older boy. One of Schlondorff’s master strokes is to use Bennent to play Oskar at every stage of his life, even at birth, making for a genuinely disturbing scene.

In fact, many scenes in “The Tin Drum” are quite disturbing as Schlondorff balances slapstick comedy with gross-out moments, many of which involve food. In one scene, a fisherman pulls a giant horse head out of the ocean and a mass of wriggling eels come shooting out. In another, Oskar’s despondent mother Agnes (Angela Winkler) shovels huge mouthfuls of sardines down her throat, nearly choking on them. Other scenes are played for humor, and much of the film is depicted in an off-center, cartoonish style, such as Oskar’s birth (when he see him staring out from the womb) or the bizarre opening in which an escaped criminal manages quite improbably to hide entirely under a woman’s dress.  “The Tin Drum” certainly doesn’t look anything like the New German Cinema of directors like Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, or Wim Wenders.

It doesn’t even look like other Volker Schlondorff films, and that’s a testament to the director’s willingness to adopt a radically different style that he felt appropriate for Grass’ eccentric novel. In remaining faithful to the book, he also courted controversy. Keep in mind that even though Oskar grows to be a young adult, the actor is still 11 years old, and the story calls for scenes in which he, like most young men, has his first sexual experiences. The film was banned in some places, most improbably in 1997 in Oklahoma.

Oskar clings to his youth (though hardly his innocence) as a shield against a series of tragedies, including the deaths of most of his loved ones, not to mention World War II. Eventually though, even this little drummer boy has to grow up, something he realizes as the Allied forces storm in and life in Germany changes forever.

“The Tin Drum” met with wide critical praise. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and later became the first New German film to win the Foreign Picture Oscar. For me, the film’s cartoonish techniques produce a distancing effect that feels like a bit of a cop-out. We can all stay one or two levels removed as we watch darkness descend on a culture (and nearly on the world) without ever really having to feel uncomfortable or challenged in the process. Oskar represents the outsider, but he also chose the easy way out in life, clinging to a faux innocence so he never has to make any difficult choices and his eventual decision to grow up rings hollow. Of course we’re hardly meant to fully embrace Oskar; he is a proxy for a populace that closed its eyes and avoided irritatingly complex responsibilities in favor of comforting rhetoric.

“The Tin Drum” provides a very different view of the rise and fall of the Third Reich, and its quirky camera angles and oddball effects give it a contemporary feel. Oskar’s also an unforgettable character, part Peter Pan and part Damien from “Omen.” The film’s constant shifts in tone from slapstick to the grotesque will keep you off-balance, but also provide it with much of its energy.

The 2004 SD release featured the long-familiar 142 minute theatrical cut. This 2013 Blu-ray includes only the recently (2010) restored 163 minute director’s cut. I have not had the opportunity to watch the original cut in its entirety in order to identify each of the new scenes. Since they were taken from a different source I would assume there are differences I quality, but I did not notice anything particularly noteworthy while watching the new cut.

The SD version was presented in 1.78:1. The 2013 director’s cut is “presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1.” This 1080p transfer is distinctly brighter in many scenes than the SD version. Image detail receives the expected boost and, of course, there’s more information at the top and bottom of the frame with the move to the original 1.66:1 ratio. Colors aren’t particularly vivid but the pre-war and war-time Germany of Schlondorff’s vision wasn’t exactly meant to a rainbow explosion.

As mentioned above, Schlondorff assembled the extra 21 minutes of this 163 minute cut from the excised scenes still stored at a lab. The image was intact, but the audio was not, so Schlondorff  contacted many of the film’s original cast members in 2010 to do ADR work for the new/old scenes. Fortunately most of the cast members were alive, though the adult David Bennent’s voice had to be significantly digitally manipulated to match young Oskar’s. I have no doubt you could hear the differences if you really tried, but I watched the new cut without even knowing about the ADR work and didn’t notice anything.

The 2004 SD was released with both Dolby Mono and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. The 2013 Blu-ray is released only with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. The lossless audio is as crisp as you can ask for though the surround mix is not overwhelmingly dynamic with a few exceptions. Optional English subtitles support the German dialogue.

The 2004 SD release was a 2-disc set; the 2013 Blu-ray is a single disc.

As mentioned above, the 2004 SD had the 142 minute theatrical mix. This 2013 BD has only the new 163 minute director’s cut. While changing cuts, Criterion has also decided to make major changes to the extras included.

The following features are imported from the SD:

“The Platform” is a 9 minute scene from the film (Oskar disrupting a Nazi rally by drumming) accompanied with audio of Gunter Grass reading from the accompanying German text.

A series of short television interviews are offered, all of which originally aired in 1979: one with actor Mario Adorf and screenwriter Jean -Claude Carriere (4 min.), one with David Bennent and Schlondorff (4 min.) an On Location interview with Schlondorff and Grass (3 min.) and a very brief 40 second interview with Schlondorff immediately after winning the Palme d’Or.

Brand new for this 2012 release are two significant features:

First up is a lengthy 67 minute interview with Schlondorff (recorded in 2012) in which he covers many details of the film from pre-production to its release. Of particular interest to viewers will be the part near the end of the interview (starting a bit before the 60 minute mark) where he talks about his 2010 restoration of the 163 minute cut, a cut whose existence he had never spoken about. Overall, this interview is pretty packed with information and consistently interesting.

Second is a 2012 interview (20 min.) with film scholar Timothy Corrigan, a film scholar whose work on the New German Cinema has been of inestimable value, certainly to me while writing my thesis on Werner Herzog nearly a decade ago. Corrigan spends the first five minutes speaking more generally about New German Cinema before delving into specifics regarding Schlondorff and “The Tin Drum.” I hope we see more of him in the near future.

Missing from the 2004 SD release are a few important features as well. First, we no longer have a commentary track from Schlondorff, no doubt because of the switch to the 163 minute cut. Second, we are missing the documentary “Banned in Oklahoma” which related the 1997 case in which an Oklahoma judge, prompted by a Christian watchdog group, decided “The Tin Drum” was child pornography. I don’t know if legal rights are the reason the documentary was not included here, but it is a major omission from the old SD. Third, we no longer have the old montage “Volker Schlondorff Remembers ‘The Tin Drum’” (20 min.) – this isn’t as big a deal since the new 67 minute interview easily supersedes it. We also don’t have a few of the shorter SD features, including Deleted Scenes, the original scripted ending, and the stills gallery.

The slim 2004 fold-out booklet had an essay by scholar Eric Rentschler. That has been replaced in the new 16-page insert booklet with an essay by author Geoffrey Macnab. Both booklets include a short statement by Gunter Grass on the film adaptation of his book.

Film Value:
This is an unusual case when a Criterion high def “re-release” of an older title thought not one of its very earliest ones (this is Spine #234) has to be considered an almost entirely new entry in the collection. The 2013 BD has the 163 minute director’s cut compared to the 142 minute theatrical release from the 2004 SD. Likewise, we not only have additional features on the 2013 re-release, but we are also missing quite a few features from the 2004 edition. For scholars and aficionados of the film, both versions are going to be necessary, so get ready to pay up. Criterion has, of course, also released this 2013 version on SD as well as Blu-ray.