Volker Schlöndorff's 'The Tin Drum' (1979) won the Palme d'Or and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, which makes it surprising that in 2010 a director's cut was released with an additional 20 minutes added. That is the version presented here by The Criterion Collection. I have not seen the original cut, so am unable to comment on the effect of the additional material.
Based on the Gunter Grass' 1959 novel of the same name, 'The Tin Drum' is a look at life in a region of Poland through the first half of the 20th Century. What makes it fascinating is narrator Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent), who tells viewers his life story through the film, and reveals that at the age of three he decided to stop growing. He speaks with a young child's voice throughout, sometimes directly to the camera, yet his thoughts are always of an adult. Some fantastic things happen throughout the film, calling into question whether Oskar is a reliable narrator.
Oskar begins in 1899 when his grandfather Anna and grandmother Joseph Koljaiczek first met. Schlöndorff has the entire sequence shot slightly under 24 frames per second. The characters' jerky movements create a silent-film look. Anna is sitting in a rural field cooking potatoes. Two policemen are chasing Joseph because he is an arsonist and he asks for her help. She allows him to hide under her skirt. What at first appear to be moments of discomfort for her turn out to be Joseph taking advantage of the situation as he comes out from under the skirts with his fly undone. Soon after Oskar's mother Agnes is born. Agnes (Angela Winkler) eventually marries Alfred Matzerath (Mario Adorf) but is in love with her cousin Jan Bronski (Daniel Olbrychski) who resembles Oskar more than Alfred does.
On that fateful third birthday, Oskar is given a tin drum, which he constantly clings to as it helps him cope with life. He also has the ability to shriek at glass-shattering volumes. It's a defense mechanism, but Berba (Fritz Hakl), a dwarf he later meets at the circus, suggests he join them and use it.
The rise of Nazism sweeps the region and has a great effect on Oskar and his family. Alfred is among the many in town to join their cause. Jan stays true to his fellow Poles. Yet, both men suffer from the choices they make. Oskar encounters Berba a second time and she takes him up on his offer. They entertain German troops and are a grand success. They eventually find themselves at the beaches of Normandy and Oskar is deeply affected before they leave.
As Oskar hits his teen years emotionally, he naturally explores his sexuality. The film handles it in an honest, straightforward manner, but to see a young boy, Bennent was 11 at the time of production, doing cocaine and suggestions of his having sex is a bit startling at first, particularly with modern-day sensitivities. Yet, it's not exploitative. Rather it seems like a natural progression of the character. The scene of Oskar talking to baby Kurt, who may be his brother or his son, as Oskar believes, is very amusing.
Schlöndorff, who co-wrote the script, strikes a great balance of tones between the serious and the absurd. His framing of shots is also stellar. I will long remember the sequence of Oskar in the womb and being born because of their creativity.
'The Tin Drum' kept me engaged long after the movie was over, which is how I measure a film's success. I was disappointed when it came to an end because I wanted the rest of Oskar's story. It not only has me curious to read the Grass' book, but to also learn about the history of the setting. Those who know more than the basics of WWII may be presented a richer story. The farther I get away from it, the more impressed I am by it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Tin Drum' (#234 in The Criterion Collection) is a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a 16-page booklet containing "Bang the Drum Loudly," an essay by Geoffrey Macnab, and excerpts from interviews with Grass conducted before and during the shoot.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.66:1. The liner notes reveal, "The new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine at Scanlab, in France, from a 35mm interpositive struck from the original camera negative; color grading was done on a Specter. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI's DRS and Pixel Farm's PFClean." The image is clean throughout and no major digital artifacts were noticed.
The opening sequence revealed the video's strengths and weaknesses. The earth tones came through in rich hues as seen in the green grass and brown dirt. There was a great amount of depth as people running off on the horizon could be clearly seen, and a pleasing amount of grain, most noticeable against the gray, overcast skies. Also seen was motion judder, which was contributed to by the shooting speed. It reappears when Alfred cooks at the hospital with Agnes.
An unfortunate strong light flicker is on display when Agnes is introduced, an early scene with her and Jan, and again when Oskar rides a horse after a funeral. While the image mainly holds a sharp focus and allows the textures to come through, there are brief moments of softness during the camera movement when Oskar arrives at Hitler's rally. The blacks are rich and the reds of the Nazi flags are bright.
According to the liner notes, "'The Tin Drum' was originally released with a monaural soundtrack. A 5.1 surround soundtrack was later created from a six-track magnetic element made at Studio Boulogne, in France, for the 1979 70mm blowup screenings of the film. The sound for the additional material in the complete version was created from the original music and effects track, a 1979 stereo music mix, and new ADR recorded at Studio Babelsberg, in Germany, under the supervision of Volker Schlondorff."
The entire track sounded free of age and wear. Dubbed dialogue did sound flat. Effects offers some nice ambiance and Maurice Jarre's score can be heard throughout the system. Cars, bikes, and horses can be heard passing through channels. The LFE delivers power during the attack by the Germans on the Polish post office, particularly the tank. The war effects contributed to a wide dynamic range.
Though the video has some issues and the extras are limited, especially when compared to some other Criterion releases, 'The Tin Drum' is such a marvelous film that I can't recommend it enough for those who haven't seen it. The unique story, inventive direction, and one of the best performances from a child I can think of it put it near the top when considering the history of German Cinema. For those who have seen it, the limitations in those areas aren't enough to keep me from recommending it.