Germans are unsurpassed when it comes to depict whatever is grotesque, bizarre, monstrous or disturbing. This tendency was best illustrated by the trend called "expressionism", an art movement of the nineteen twenties that applied to painting (Dix, Grosz), cinema (Fritz Lang, Murnau) and theatre (Bertold Brecht's "Threepenny opera"). The movement was dismissed by the Nazis as "degenerate art" and abruptly ended with Hitler's rise to power. As a movie, "The Tin Drum" is a unique modern tribute to expressionism.
Before it was adapted for screen, "The Tin Drum" was already a classic of German modern novel. The author, Gunther Grass, was born in Danzig, now Gdansk, Poland's major port on the Baltic Sea (where the "Solidarnosc" movement actually appeared the very year the movie was released). During the interwar period, Danzig was officially a "free city", but was claimed both by Germany and Poland, and it was the German invasion of Danzig that was the official cause for the outbreak of World War II. So no wonder the hero of "The Tin Drum", little Oscar, is born to a German mother and two different fathers, a Pole (the natural one) and a German (the adoptive one).
When little Oscar is born, his mother predicts that when he turns three, he will be given a tin drum. Prediction comes true, as little Oscar turns out to be a very naughty sort of Peter Pan. Disgusted by the world of adults around him, he attempts suicide at age three by jumping from the top of the cellar staircase. He survives but his growth is stopped. The eerie gnome and his fellow drum become inseparable, and if one ever tries, little Oscar has a lethal weapon : he can shout so shrill that his voice breaks any glass around. So don't mess with little Oscar, who keeps drumming and drumming for any reason, and remains a sarcastic and outcast witness of his time : the rise and fall of Nazism.
The Third Reich is depicted here as background for Oscar's adventures. Since he can't attend school because he will never give up his drum, he makes a career in a troop of circus midgets where his glass-breaking talents can bloom. Most of the time, Nazism is mocked here as a ridiculous farce with a humor à la Lubitsch. At heart though, "The Tin Drum" is far from being just a satire, as tragedy is often underlying under the dark humor. After little Oscar has lost his two fathers at age twenty one, he decides to bury his fetish toy in a pit, and embarks on a westbound refugee train as Germans are massively evicted of their former eastern territories.
This movie has an unusual amount of excellent scenes, but I'd rather not mention them, because there are just too many, and the surprise effect makes them all the more grasping. Needless to say that several of them deal with Oscar's glass-breaking exploits, which soon develop on a massive scale. Many of them are also voluntarily disgusting, but I guess it's the name of the game here. Should you eat before or after seeing this? In case you don't eat before, you might not feel very hungry afterwards, and if you do... well, if you're faint of stomach, better you avoid this movie anyway.
If you get a chance and you don't mind subtitles, the original version seems like a good option. Little David Bennent's mischievous and cringing voice is an excellent performance, and gets enhanced by the rasping sound of the German language. The movie is almost two and a half hours long, and if it's no wonder that many will find it absurd or offending, it is neither slow or boring
A well deserved Palme d'Or in Cannes for 1979.