World War II is something so mind-boggling, with such an epic loss of human life, that the main antagonist of the war has become short-hand for evil incarnate (it’s Hitler, if you really didn’t know). The entire world changed, on a cognitive level, after the horrors of NAZI Germany came to light. No longer was war considered something noble or worthwhile. It was now something deadly serious (sorry, I couldn’t resist that pun). America, while a major player at the end of the war, was still separated from the majority of WWII by an ocean. This (arguably) has had a slight distancing effect on the war and has allowed us to see it in colors of black & white (good v. evil) because we do not have to look on the wreckage that the great war caused, and live in places that once were bombarded by bombs and paranoia on an almost daily basis.
That leads me to The Tin Drum, a book that I admittedly picked up because I wanted to watch the movie and hadn’t realized the film came from a novel. In the middle of reading this 600-page trek through Poland from before NAZI occupation to the reconstruction of Germany, the author Günter Grass died. I didn’t know much about the background of the novel, but found out in the wake of the author’s death. It turns out that The Tin Drum is standard reading in high-school for much of Europe. It is considered one of the greatest books about WWII ever written, and (I found out later because of the film) has its main character Forrest-Gump his way through major events in NAZI Poland. An even more upsetting fact is that later in life (during a publicity circuit for his autobiography) Grass admitted that he had joined the SS. This is not a Hitler Youth, everyone just kind-of had to do it situation. The SS was a volunteer Special Op’s force that would undoubtedly desire a show of loyalty for consideration. The messiness of human history can easily be seen through Grass’s strange life.
But why is The Tin Drum considered one of the best novels about WWII? First, because it doesn’t directly deal with the war. Like Miyazaki’s The Wind Also Rises, the war is some strange vestigial thing that weaves its way into and out of the character’s life, but life goes on, with or without acknowledgement of the war. Second, because it is surreal. As with Gravity’s Rainbow (I would argue), the surreal elements of the book help make the war more understandable, more palatable. That is because WWII is such a surreal thing in-and-of itself. It wiped out an almost Black Plague amount of humanity (but honestly, not nearly Black Plague percentages) from the Earth, and people saw in the aftermath how war had become so efficient that a factory mentality had been applied to the mass killing of human beings. 60 million people were killed. That is more than 3x the number of deaths during WWI, the largest amount of killing that the world had seen up to that point. The point is that we can’t process it, because it doesn’t make sense. So the only way to make sense of it, is to tell the story through senselessness.
The Tin Drum is the story of a boy and his family. The book starts off with the family before his mother’s birth, and progress’s from there. When the boy is born he is promised a tin drum on his third birthday, a promise that he remembers and one that is kept. On his third birthday, deciding that he does not want to grow any bigger (now that he has his precious drum), he hurls himself down the basement stairs, giving himself a concussion that magically stops him from growing and also gives him the strange power of being able to scream at such a high pitch as to shatter glass. The protagonist is also adept at playing his drum, to the point where it is his main form of communication as he plays dumb with the rest of the world. The story then proceeds through a strange world of double-fathers (as his mother was in love with her cousin, despite being married to someone else), death through eating fish, sleeping with the local gay neighbors wife, and the many in’s-and-out’s of trying to keep oneself supplied with tin drums during war time. While the war goes on, though, we stay narcissistically close to the stunted protagonist and his solipsistic view of the world.
The film The Tin Drum tells the story that I outlined above. Directed by Volker Schlondorff (who also directed the Dustin Hoffman lead of Death of a Salesman), and starring a surprisingly adept David Bennent as the 3-year old protagonist, Oskar Matzerath (though Bennent was closer to 12 at the time of filming), the film went on to win the Palm d’Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival. It is little wonder as the film is expertly shot; retains the sense of humor, irreverence, and oddly narrow world-view of the protagonist; and manages the tricky feat of adding magical realism to a film without pushing it into absurd or cartoonish territory. As mentioned above, the film spells out some of the major portions of the World War (things that I assume I missed during the reading because it does not come up in American-taught history) by showing archival footage of places where little Oskar happened to be (like I said, Forrest Gump’ing it). While the film obviously misses some beats and some of the emotion that happen in the book, it is a masterful look at how to be true to a novel while making the story fit into a filmic voice.
I must speak specifically about one scene, though: the NAZI rally. I have spoken of Oskar’s proficiency with the drum, but I haven’t talked about how he learns to use his drum to sway people’s emotions. There is a NAZI rally, where you see smiling faces and joviality as the NAZI party is heralded into power, to the apparent delight of the townspeople. It is a powerful scene just for the cognitive dissonance that the visuals are imbued with, several decades after the fact. The scene would not feel out of place in a feel good American movie, but the NAZI iconography lends an unavoidable menace to the generally happy scene. Oskar sneaks under the grandstand with his drum, and as the band begins to play some rally music, Oskar plays along. Soon you notice as Oskar becomes slightly off beat with the rest of the band, and soon after that you notice that the band is gently changing their music to the beat of Oskar’s music. Soon, not only is the band swaying themselves (musically) towards Oskar’s beat, but the audience begins to sway as well (physically). One by one they pair off and waltz, much to the dismay of the Polish NAZI leader who has now lost control of his rally. It is a beautiful and surreal scene, lush with the red of NAZI banners, serene in the flowing movements of the crowd, and most of all dismissive to the self-seriousness of the NAZI ideology.
The movie ends with Oskar and his family leaving Poland after the Russians come in and “liberate” them. But the book still has some way to go, as Oskar and his family leave Poland and move to Düsseldorf, Germany. Oskar, by hurling himself from another height, undoes the anti-growing spell that had kept him as tall as a 3-year old, and he slowly begins to grow again. The novel now follows the family through the reconstruction of Germany and through Oskar becoming a working member of society and multiple jobs. While it is understandable why the movie left off where it did, it does miss one important scene (which is echoed in the NAZI rally waltz): The Onion Cellar.
With Oskar’s adept drumming skills (after he picks back up playing his drum, leaving it behind after he begins to grow) he joins a jazz band that is soon discovered by the owner of a club called The Onion Cellar. The Onion Cellar is an interesting club in that they don’t serve alcohol, or have a dance floor, or really serve any food. What The Onion Cellar does is supply guests (at a hefty price, collected as you leave) with a knife, a cutting board, and an onion. Oskar and his band then begin to play as people cut up their onions, and begin to cry. Once again, Grass has landed on something integral to how WWII changed humanity in a deep and strange way. The people have forgotten how to cry. There is a surplus of emotion, but no way to let these emotions out. None of it makes sense. Much like the war, it is too big, too strange, too much for any one person to handle, let alone understand. So crying becomes a commodity. Something that has to be brought on by other means. Because there is a lot to cry about, but at the same time there is nothing to cry about…(there is more to The Onion Cellar story, but if piqued, you should really pick up the book, it is amazing)
The Tin Drum and The Tin Drum both capture the way that a war of such ridiculous magnitude effects people on a personal level, as shown through Oskar, who only delves further inward. The war is something on the horizon, something that only effects tangentially, but we are still the most important people in any of our lives. Günter Grass probably had a lot of demons he was dealing with while writing the book, and the (self) exposure of his NAZI past stains the book in an interesting way. Not detracting from any of it, but somehow making it more human. Because it is all about narcissism, about the simple absurdities of life that none of us are really prepared to deal with in the end. We just keep floating on, and the same people that came to liberate us are just as likely to do us harm. We are all just waiting for God…Nothing to be done.
(Sorry, had to get a little literary at the end there.)