Thursday, October 29, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "A Tin[n]y Beat" (on Günter Grass' The Tin Drum)

a tin[n]y beat

by Douglas Messerli

Günter Grass Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), 1959, English language version translated by Ralph Mannheim (New York: Random House, 1961).

Jean-Claude Carrière, Franz Seitz, and Voker Schlöndorff (screenplay, based on the novel by Günter Grass), Volker Schlöndorff (director) Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), / 1979, USA 1980

Writing about Volkner Schlöndorff’s 1979 film adaptation of Günter Grass’s 1959 fiction The Tin Drum, Roger Ebert began his review with the following series of critical “accusations”:


        Allegories have trouble standing for something else if they

        are too convincing as themselves. That is the difficulty

        with The Tin Drum, which is either (a) an allegory about

        one person's protest against the inhumanity of the world, or

        (b) the story of an obnoxious little boy.

           The movie invites us to see the world through the eyes of

        little Oskar, who on his third birthday refuses to do any more

        growing up because the world is such a cruel place. My

        problem is that I kept seeing Oskar not as a symbol of courage

        but as an unsavory brat; the film's foreground obscured its larger


           So what does that make me? An anti-intellectual philistine?

        I hope not. But if it does, that's better than caving in to the

        tumult of publicity and praise for The Tin Drum which has

        shared the Grand Prix at Cannes (with Apocalypse Now)

        and won the Academy Award as best foreign film, and is hailed

        on all fronts for its brave stand against war and nationalism and

        in favor of the innocence of childhood.

          Actually, I don't think little Oskar is at all innocent in this

       film; a malevolence seems to burn from his eyes, and he's compro-

       mised in his rejection of the world's evil by his own behavior as

       the most spiteful, egocentric, cold and calculating character in the

       film (all right: except for Adolf Hitler).

          The film has been adapted by the West German

       filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff from the 1959 novel by Günter

       Grass, who helped with the screenplay. It chronicles the career of

       little Oskar, who narrates his own life story starting with his

       mother's conception in a potato patch. Oskar is born into a world

       divided: in the years after World War I, both Germans and Poles

       live in the state of Danzig, where they get along about as well as

       Catholics and Protestants in Belfast.

          Oskar has fathers of both nationalities…., and he is not

       amused by the nationalistic chauvinism he sees around him.

          So, on his third birthday, he reaches a conscious decision

       to stop growing. He provides a plausible explanation for

       his decision by falling down the basement stairs. And for

       the rest of the movie he remains arrested in growth: a solemn-

       faced, beady-eyed little tyke who never goes anywhere without

       a tin drum which he beats on incessantly. For his other trick, he

       can scream so loudly that he shatters glass.

          There is a scene in which Oskar's drum so confuses a Nazi

       marching band that it switches from a Nazi hymn to "The Blue

       Danube." The crashing obviousness of this scene aside, I must

       confess that the symbolism of the drum failed to involve me.

          And here we are at the central problem of the movie: Should I,

        as a member of the audience, decide to take the drum as, say,

        a child's toy protest against the marching cadences of the German

        armies? Or should I allow myself to be annoyed by the child's

        obnoxious habit of banging on it whenever something's not to

        his liking? Even if I buy the wretched drum as a Moral Symbol,

        I'm still stuck with the kid as a pious little bastard.


    I’ve quoted at length here because the generally exuberant and supportive film critic, Ebert, writes words that somewhat echo my own feelings—but oddly, not about the film, but the original novel. That book, published in 1959, is often described as the first and most important of German World War II books that dealt straight-forwardly with German guilt. And it has consistently been praised by numerous critics (see, for example, the Gaurdian review of a new translation in 2009) as one of the greatest of 20th century fictions.
     Although I think of myself as an extraordinarily well-read person when it comes to fiction and poetry, for some reason I had never before read the book, but given the news of Grass’ death earlier this year, and my focus on World War II and Germany in these 2015 volumes, I became determined to correct that.
     I cannot report that it was a completely enjoyable project. Although Grass has a remarkable command of various fictional genres which he employs throughout the book, and although he most certainly creates a larger-than-life surrealist-tinged story, the book almost seems to me to cloak what I might have thought to be its major subject: life in Nazi Germany.

      By locating the action in Danzig, Poland, away from the German heartland, in part, Grass delimits his focus. While Danzig, in fact, been one of the first territories to have been taken  over by the Nazis, who claimed the city, in large, because of its large German population and its long ties with Prussia, and led, soon after to the German invasion of Poland, by placing most the work’s action there, Grass puts the worst of the German atrocities on the fringes. Yes, we get a first-hand glimpse, so to speak, of the battle of the Polish Post Office; and through the fact that Oskar’s legal if not true father, Matzerath, is a Nazi sympathizer, we do get an immediate portrayal of how that might effected family life. We even get a close-up glimpse of a Nazi rally which little Oskar, with his endless drumming, purportedly and quite miraculously “breaks up” by causing the Nazi band to shift to the rhythms of a waltz. But these events, including the later destruction of the Jewish Markus’ toy shop and Oskar’s later involvement in a troupe of dwarves entertaining the German soldiers in the bunkers, all seem almost incidental to the central tale which focuses on the determined little person, Oskar.

      The very fact that the fiction’s hero, Oskar, is a kind of eternal child, who would rather drum that talk, prevents the fiction from fully exploring and encountering deeper issues about the Nazi takeover. From a child’s point-of-view we get mostly glimpses, long perspectives, hints as opposed to direct presentation of the world Hitler and his associates created. The only thing that truly matters to Oskar is his drumming, and all else seems almost tangential.
      The book, moreover, does not at all make it clear that Oskar drums in opposition to the immorality he witnesses. At numerous times, Oskar seems far more attracted to and interested in Bronski, his mother Agnes’ not-so-secret lover than in Matzerath. While he may apply his shrill scream to nearby windows while he is left with Markus during one of his mother’s trysts, he also uses his drumming and screaming skills to tempt strangers—as well as Bronski—to steal good through windows he has cracked open. If Matzerath is a closet Nazi, he is more emphatically a wonderful cook and a rather doting father, despite the fact that even he must wonder about Oskar’s parentage.
      Oskar, moreover, is hardly presented as an individual with moral values in opposition with the German-controlled world around him. The forever young hellion is only too happy to deface church property, to seduce his own father’s shopkeeper and—after Agnes dies—his mistress, Maria, and father her son Kurt. And, in a long episode, Oskar becomes the leader of a group of armed young bandits, The Dusters (an imitation of the real Edelweiss Pirates of Cologne) who represent the mirror image of the brownshirts, using the chaos of the Nazi’s last years to create chaos. 
      Oskar is quite ready to be able to join with Bebra, Roswitha, and others of the midget group celebrated by Nazi soldiers. He witnesses the murder of several nuns walking across a nearby beach by Corporal Lankes. Rather than drumming out in disgust, Oskar seems to take in the event with little of the horror one might expect: “Roswitha, stop your ears, there’s going to be shooting like in the newsreels.” In other words, for him reality has become a kind simulacrum. 
      After the war, Oskar turns even more corrupt, breaking into the bedroom of his neighbor, a nurse, and later, attempting to rape her. When she is murdered he is suspected and placed in an asylum, from which, even if he is found not guilty, he has no desire to leave. 
       In short, Oskar, in Grass’ original work, is not only the “pious little bastard” who Ebert sees him as, but has been a child-voyeur, street thug, rapist, and collaborator, as well as an out-and-out liar whose tale is clearly unreliable, which completely diminishes any moral ground by which we might judge Nazi Germany. Since so much of the work is written in a kind hazy surrealist style with allegorical implications, moreover, it is indeed very difficult throughout to find in Grass’ The Tin Drum any moral center.
     One might argue, of course, that during the Nazi regime there was no moral position left, and that Oskar represents the childlike aspects the culture as a whole, neither entirely good or bad, but mixed in its attempts to simply to survive. The drum is, arguably, a symbol of the potential of art to sustain existence within a world with no moral compass, and, like all art, is neither entirely evil or morally responsible. It is what it is, a force of expression that sometimes subverts the evil around it, but just often joins in to encourage society’s tortures, such as, late in the novel, when Oskar plays in a jazz group hired by a club whose members gather to grate onions so they might be able to cry, releasing their otherwise inexpressible feelings.
     As the first major post-holocaust German novel, such statements, however, seem to me to be as tinny and tiny as the beat of Oscar’s little drum. I might suggest, without actually judging Grass, that it is a work of a man who, having himself been involved in the Nazi regime, did not seriously want to explore the darkest aspects of those horrific years.

     In the film, Volker Schlöndorff, is only too ready to present Oskar as a moral center of the work, cutting vast sections of Grass’s original, including the last section, and extending scenes that show, in far more simplistic terms, direct connections with Oskar’s tin drumming and the immorality he witnesses around him. While Markus (Charles Aznavour), another of Agnes’ admirers, is very briefly presented in the book, for example, Schlöndorff extends the scenes in which he gently proposes to Agnes, and adds a long connecting scene wherein Markus’s shop is destroyed by brownshirts and left without any hope.

     Since Oskar is actually played in the film by an 11 year-old child (the eerie David Bennent), we can more easily forgive his selfish actions such as his determination to take the drum from the shelf of the Post Office director’s family during the building’s siege. His interest in Maria,  and licking of effervescent sherbet powder from her navel seems more like curiosity than the fiction’s 16 year-old stunted boy’s same actions—even if it does end in sexual acts.
     Schlöndorff’ and his writers quickly wash over some of Oskar’s contradictory actions, clean up the hundreds of minor entanglements of the fiction and cut long sections to present a far more flowing narrative, where allegory is made more comfortable. 
     Using Grass’ generation myth concerning an escaping criminal and Oskar’s grandmother’s many layers of skirts under which the criminal hides, the director even ends his film as a kind of testament to the Kashubian roots of Grass’ Danzig, pulling it away from both its Polish and Nazi pasts.
      If Schlöndorff’s vast reconstruction of Grass’ original might be said to be a great simplification of the novel, it is nonetheless far more satisfying as a moral allegory which quite entertainingly uses its somewhat loathsome tyke as a force standing apart and against of the ills of the period. Whether or not he was able to make Oskar likeable is another issue. But the issues around him are certainly more centered and focused in Schlöndorff’s cinematic rendition than in Grass’ original work. And the acting, finally, is quite brilliant.

Los Angeles, October 29, 2015