This film, made in 1979, won the Academy Award for the best foreign language film. It's based on the novel with the same name written by Günter Grass in 1959. The novel is considered to the best German novel written in the 20th Century, and many critics claim that it's one of the best novels written in any language since the war.
Well, when such praise is heaped upon a work of fiction the question is, what is it about? The book's meaning is a subject of controversy, but some reviewers see it as a picture of the development of the 20th Century from 1900 to 1955. (The film only goes as far as 1945). There do seem to be some political messages, but they aren't consistent. I'll have to restrict myself to describing the film and leave the interpretation to others.
Oskar Matzerath is born in Danzig with full intelligence. It would be more accurate to say that he is conceived with full intelligence, because we see him in his mother's womb trembling with fear, not wanting to go out into the world. But the doctors force him out, and his life begins. He can understand everything that is said to him, but he prefers not to answer. On his third birthday he decides that he will no longer grow, he will remain in the body of a three-year-old forever. He's given a tin drum as a birthday present, which accompanies him for the rest of his life, only being replaced when it's irreparably broken. On his third birthday Oskar also discovers that he has an unusual ability: by screaming he can break glass, which he does frequently whenever anyone tries to force him to do something against his will.
Oskar lives through the difficult times of Hitler's rise to power and the Second World War. Despite being in the body of a three-year-old he has his first sexual encounters, first with a sixteen-year-old girl, then with a French midget. He joins a circus troupe, and later goes to France to entertain the German soldiers. Because of his size he's never taken seriously, but he's highly intelligent, probably more intelligent than the people around him, so he stands watching what people do, amazed by their stupidity.
I watched this film today after hearing about the death of Günter Grass. His death doesn't make me sad, because of his years of hypocrisy. For decades he pretended to be opposed to National Socialism and Fascism, before he finally admitted to having been a member of the SS, and he even wrote poetry criticising the Jewish nation's right to survive. It seems that in his last few years his mental faculties were deteriorating and he was no longer able to remain quiet. The last poems he wrote are of such poor quality that I can't understand why publishers were willing to print them. It was a sad end to a man who used to be a literary genius. We can be glad that he died before he sank any deeper, totally destroying his reputation.
Click here for a link to my previous article about Günter Grass.
16 October 1927 – 13 April 2015