|OSKAR BANGS HIS DRUM|
dir. Volker Schlöndorff
Starring: David Bennett,
Angela Winkler, Mario Adorf,
Daniel Olbrychski, Charles Aznavour
Review By Greg Klymkiw
There are many reasons why this film adaptation of the Günter Grass novel was a critically acclaimed, multi-award-winning box office smash in 1979 and stayed at the top for many years as the go-to-must-see rep-cinema darling of the early-to-mid-80s, just as there are explanations why it's lost some lustre over the last 30 years and why, in spite of this, the picture is still compelling viewing.
At the age of three, little Oskar Matzerath (David Bennett) decides not to grow. Believing a tiny physical stature will maintain childhood innocence, he violently tosses himself down the basement stairs and onto the concrete below. It works. Though his mind grows, he remains exactly the same height for the rest of his life and to the family and outside world, he's happily allowed to be three years old forever.
Living in the pre-WWII independent free city Danzig, Oskar'a maternal bloodline hails from the Kashubia region of northern Poland. Here, Poles and Germans live together in relative harmony - so much so that Oskar's mother (Angela Winkler) has concurrent mutual love affairs with a German (Mario Adorf) and a Pole (Daniel Olbrchski) and though it's the former who marries Mom to give Oskar a "name", it seems obvious that the latter is his biological Dad.
Oskar's most prized possession is the tin drum his mother purchases from the kindly Jewish Toy Shop dealer (Charles Aznavour) who sadly holds an unrequited torch for her. Oskar seldom lets go of the drum and he develops a unique talent. When he's displeased, he bangs his drum and lets out a piercing scream that is powerful enough to shatter glass.
Once Poland in conquered by Germany, the world changes, though Oskar remains a dwarf. This semi-childlike creature with the uncanny gift finds even more in the world to be dissatisfied about - especially now that he is developing the internal desires of manhood, but looked upon as a child.
It's a great story. Unfortunately, the years have not been kind to the movie, in spite of this being a new director's cut that adds 20 minutes to the running time. Much of the footage fleshes out what once seemed like a choppy, though eminently fascinating and grotesque movie.
In spite of this, the film's inherent flaws have not been eradicated by this new cut. Schlöndorff's erratic direction is still maddeningly all over the place. When the camera is trained on Oskar and the young David Bennett's great performance (coupled with the intensity of his sharply angular face and piercing eyes), the movie is certainly a strange and worthy look at war through the eyes of a child who refuses to grow up, but sadly does so beneath his outer physical appearance.
Schlöndorff errs, however, since he wants to have his cake and eat it too. Much of the film is played straight with a formal, classical structure whilst a variety of grotesqueries parade in front of the lens. I have no objection to this, but he never quite hits the right balance between playing the tale "straight" and injecting numerous hackneyed pseudo-hip touches like speeding up the camera at the beginning of the film to mime the period of cinema in which the action occurs. He just doesn't go the distance. The silent movie pastiche is inadequately rendered. It feels like lame parody rather than satire and sets the movie off on the wrong foot.
Some of the more magic-realist elements DO work - an astonishing within the womb shot of Oskar and a couple of perverse dream sequences are indelibly rendered. Others, however, fall flat on their face. The famous sequence in the book where Oskar manipulates a Nuremberg-styled rally is handled in such a straight forward and rather dull manner that the sequence feels more like a good idea gone bad rather than the sublime qualities of the same sequence in the book which, demanded a cinematic evocation with a delicately perverse touch.
Still and all, this is a film that demands being seen. The Criterion Collection edition expertly includes a series of extra features that do enhance one's appreciation for Schlöndorff's approach, but somewhat brilliantly display why much of his direction falters. The most telling added value bonus is seeing the aforementioned rally sequence with novelist Günter Grass reading the same sequence from the novel. The sheer poetic and lyrical qualities of the prose contrast wildly with the choppy, literal-minded rendering of the same sequence.
What the film needed was, if anything, delicacy - not a cudgel - which, more often than not is what Schlöndorff wields with a madness, even when he's resorting to straight-up by-the-numbers directorial approaches.
We're likely to never see another film adaptation of this astonishing book and as this is all we have, and because it's as well-intentioned and sometimes effective as much as it is annoyingly disappointing is reason enough to see it and embrace it as one would a ne'er do well blood relative. Blood is thick. And it must be acknowledged.
But oh, to think of how Andrei Tarkovsky or Ulrich Seidl or even (I kid you not) Steven Spielberg might have wrought a work of magic, of utter perfection; a work infused with uncompromising poetic qualities are some of the things that will always haunt me whenever I continue to watch this wholly worthy, yet oddly inadequate cinematic rendering of the great Grass novel. This most recent viewing made me even think about a movie that never was, but should have been - one in which the style of Ingmar Bergman's miscued Nazi horror film The Serpent's Egg could have been married to the same Grass-approved screenplay Schlöndorff worked from. What glorious imaginings.
The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray is more than worth seeing and because of its attributes on the level of the disc's production value (including the stunning remastering of the picture's look) offers yet another great home entertainment item also worth owning.