It seems like there has been so much talk about the controversy of Volker Schlondorff’s The Tin Drum that everyone has completely forgotten to be at all thoughtful about the film. Ever since the film was released in 1978, it has been condemned to suffering the drudges of case after case of censorship battles and bannings. It was as recently as 1997 that Oklahoma started the whole hullabaloo about child pornography and forcibly removed all copies from libraries and video rental stores – only to apologetically replace them after a couple months.
Since Criterion re-released the film in 2004 I think film viewers may be more inclined to examine the film more thoughtfully – though certainly not outside the context of controversy. So today I sat down with the biggest bowl of spaghetti I could possibly eat, my 32 ounces of soda, and a bowl of cherries (I was really hungry, I guess) and watched The Tin Drum in its entirety.
It’s a hard one to grasp, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Ebert went off on a bit of a rant on how the child is unlikable so the film fails in the allegory that he has decided the filmmaker intended. I don’t know why I keep reading that guy. It seems like he gets it wrong about 75% of the time, and the rest of the time he’s working within the somewhat more direct Hollywood format. (I still remember his television review of Tomb Raider 2 where he excitedly proclaimed “people fly!”) But he’s at the top of the IMDB external sources and I always click, deceived by some sort of myth of chronological authority.
Ok. Back to the subject. I can see why writing about The Tin Drum is so hard. There is so much to talk about and so much to get enraged about. For example, let’s jump to the sensationalism of using a dead horse’s head to fish for eels, shall we? As two men are shaking the horse’s head, eels slipping out of its mouth in schools, I – like the female protagonist – felt like vomiting. And that wasn’t the only time in the film that produced this upchuck effect. A kid is forced to drink dirt/pee/frog soup, a dead fetus is spilled onto the floor, oral sex involving what appears to be an eleven year old kid, raw fish scarfing, blood, guts, death, etc. etc. etc. But instead of dwelling on these bits of grotesqueness, why not dwell on the meaning trapped inside them?
The film is about a boy, Oskar, who, at the age of 3, decides that he never wants to grow up. Instead, he spends his adolescence trapped inside a tiny body, banging on a tin drum his mother got him on his third birthday. All the while, WWII is raging in the background, swallowing up the adults around him.
Like Ebert says, the man-child in this film is monstrous. A little bastard-brat that can get whatever he wants because he can produce a pitch that can break glass. Many have claimed that the film is an allegory that shows how adults are vile and that the only way to maintain innocence is to remain as a child. I completely disagree. The child in the film is the most evil character. His refusal to grow up is not necessarily a refusal to join a corrupt adult world, but a way to get what he wants and remain in a state where everyone must always pay attention to him. He wants to remain innocent, but he also wants to experience the joy that sex and murder can bring him. It is not inadvertently that he gets involved with his parents’ death. In fact, in voice over narration, Oskar admits that he knows exactly what is going on. He knows that he has caused his parents’ death, and by continuing to behave in selfish ways, he knowingly murders again.
In a fabulous birth sequence near the beginning of the film, when Oskar emerges from the womb full grown and covered in blood and mucus, he admits that he has an intense desire to return to the womb. He wants to simultaneously be a part of and possess his mother. Even by the age of 16 Oskar continues to desire the maternal as he makes passes at his nanny (who is his age, but much taller). He kills his father to possess his mother. Sound familiar?
And this isn’t the only Freudian/Lacanian reference. Oskar acknowledges his desire to remain in a pre-linguistic state when he says that he will never grow up. It is only at the end of the film that he successfully enters the mirror stage of development, and we never see him fully mature. The Freudian references in The Tin Drum are so obvious that they are almost annoying, spiced up only through the graphic, violent images that seem to symbolize the difficulties of coming to terms with various stages of development. (or, as Julia Kristeva might suggest, the represent the site of primal repression. The utterly abject.)
While connections between Freudian psycho-sexual development and WWII are, at first, interesting, they become tedious to me, which is, perhaps, why people want to pay more attention to the controversy and performances than any sort of theoretical analysis. Because there are some sensational moments between characters highlighted by a very interesting premise with or without the analysis.
Anyway, my spaghetti was good, though I think Prego is just as good as any of that fancy Classico stuff.