“On the day I reflected about the world of the grownups and my own future, I came to the point that from now on I didn’t want to grow another inch but stay a three-year-old forever.”
On his third birthday little Oskar decides, out of general refusal of the world of the grownups and whose mental development had already completed the moment of his birth, to stop growing from now on. He throws himself down the basement stairs of his house and becomes a puzzle to the doctors, especially with his ability to shatter glass through singing. With the red and white tin drum, a birthday present, Oskar from now on drums a distance between himself and his surroundings, creating his very own language against ideology and fanaticism and to protest against the hubris of the people in his surroundings. That way eccentric Oskar faces the rise and fall of the Nazi-terror in Danzig in his very own manner.
23 April 1977
Today I read Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) for the first time, not in one day of course. Back in 1959, the year the book was published, I was only interested in France and tried to gain a foothold there. I tried to imagine a “Tin Drum”-film, which could become an outstanding fresco, world history experienced from below: giant, spectacular images all held together by the small Oskar. He was called a spawn of the twentieth century. (Schlöndorff 2011, p. 242)
With the film adaptation of Günter Grass’ bestseller novel DIE BLECHTROMMEL (The Tin Drum) Schlöndorff devoted himself to a piece of work that belongs to the most significant postwar literature. In the first literary work of the Danziger Trilogy – with the novels Katz und Maus (Cat and Mouse) from 1961 and Hundejahre (Dog Years) from 1963 – the literature Nobel laureate narrates the tale of Oskar Matzerath in three parts: In 1952 the now 30-year-old, who was placed in a psychiatric hospital, describes the experiences from his past under the influence of the National Socialism, which finally climaxes in the Second World War and the years of post-war Germany. Hence, his story encompasses 55 years: from the procreation of his mother Agnes on the Kashubian potato field in 1889, to the year 1924 in which Oskar is born, up to the year 1954, during which he, while in psychiatric hospitalization, records his experiences in an autobiography.
Preliminary work / financing / script
“This title would stay with me like a trademark for the rest of my life. In the beginning its success could not be anticipated, however a failure would also be interesting, said Günter Grass and prompted me to write a diary. I should just write down everything that happens, the usual ups and downs during the making of a film, nothing extraordinary, just our experiences, as unmasked as possible…” (Schlöndorff 2011, p. 242)
Schlöndorff actually kept a diary during the research and the production, filling four notebooks with his thoughts. They provide information about the process of the filming as well as the fears and hopes of the producer. His notations start with his first meeting with Günter Grass, their first ideas about production problems and obstacles in financing, up to the documentation of the individual shooting days:
I am petrified. Tonight I dreamed of the first screening of the Tin Drum film in Paris in front of about 600 guests. There was no reaction in the auditorium. During the last sequence, a re-appearance of Oskar as infant, who cautiously taps a waltz beat and starts dancing, the audience is already leaving the auditorium. When the lights go on there is already an atmosphere of departure. No word, no applause.
Schlöndorff’s film adaptation of DIE BLECHTROMMEL (The Tin Drum) is only dedicated to the first and second part of the narration, whereas the postwar years and Oscar’s life in the psychiatric hospital are left out. In Schlöndorff’s notes one finds his thoughts about a Part Two of the BLECHTROMMEL (The Tin Drum) which would take place in the 1950s, the time in which he himself grew up. The project remains unrealized to this day. (Schlöndorff 2011, 20. Oktober 77, p. 249)
After finishing the first script, written by the producer Franz Seitz, doubts arise at the film adaptation of the interlaced cut-backs and Oskar’s Off-texts. This draft which starts with the experiences made in the psychiatric hospital “were cumbersome and overpowered with information. […] Eventually we start with the potato field, the grandmother and the classic fairy tale entrance that says: ‘Once upon a time…'” (ibid., p. 249).
A further challenge brought the search for the right actor for the Oskar character. Schlöndorff and Seitz visited, amongst other things, a congress of growth restricted people and quickly agreed: “Oskar needs to be a child, and it needs to be as growth restricted as possible.” (ibid., p. 247) In the course of their research they visited doctors specialized in this phenomenon and discovered 12-year-old David Bennent, son of the actor Heinz Bennent, who played the character of the lawyer Hubert Blorna in Schlöndorff’s film DIE VERLORENE EHRE DER KATHARINA BLUM (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum). After their first meeting at the Munich Oktoberfest Schlöndorff was sure to have found his Oskar Matzerath.
The work on the script was halted in November 1977 due to production problems. The production costs were estimated to be at least 6 to 7 millions DM. The consideration to shoot the film in English, with stars such as Dustin Hoffmann or Roman Polanski as Oskar and Isabelle Adjani and Keith Carradine as his parents, was quickly rejected. However, Schlöndorff was still distressed about the realization of his project:
The following difficulties bring me close to giving up:
The preparations are just a „fire drill”, as of a lack of definitive contracts there is no money for tests and employment.
The reception of the film is threatened by the lack of good technology, foremost special effects.
The contract negotiations will stay precarious until the last moment – right now, for example, UA (United Artists) jeopardized because of the resignation of Emet Goldschmidt, Berlin credit still not passed […], FFA [Filmförderungsanstalt] postponed.
No useable studio in Berlin.
Fear of staging a bourgeois environment because of the lack of own experience.
A film in German and in such a dimension cannot be amortized.
From June 6th on the financial aids get granted. The Berlin credit gets granted and on June 12th the commitment for the loan of the FFA over 700.000 DM. Finally the contracts can be signed: “Now the money is here. On the eleventh hour!”
Today are the first test shoots. Yesterday, over the course of the day, David and Angela, Mario and Daniel arrived, as well as Mariella Oliveri and her mother from Rome – a charming Roswitha! In addition, the costume team from Berlin, makeup artists, etc. In the evening they are all at our place, and there is a great understanding between all of them. Mario makes Matzerath jokes, Angela and David are flirting, and a lot of wine and schnapps is being drunk. David has brought her a Kashubian mirror and gets himself adored by her. The relations are perfect. David walks from one of his presumed fathers to the next, cuddles and flatters Angela, marvels at the dark eyed, little Italian girl […]. It is almost eerie how well they harmonize. What a presumption to bring people together that way, to hand them over to their parts and relationships. Then again, how wonderful that everyone is able to settle in so well. They all look so authentic that it seems we are closer to a documentary than a literary adaption.
The complex special effects still were of major concern to the director and his team. The expert Georges Janconelli was brought all the way from Paris for his aid. He, together with Nikos Perakis, will work on the glass shattering by singing, the bomb explosions, shootings and other pyrotechnics, also with the help of uncommon techniques: “For the glass shattering by singing a sound generator from the Opel factory will be delivered”. (Schlöndorff 2011, p. 262) On 31 July 1978 the shooting began in Zagreb with the picture 58: May meadows. In November, after 17 weeks of filming and various other locations in Zagreb, the Normandy and Gdansk, Poland, the shoot is wrapped up in the CCC Studios Berlin. On 3 May 1979 the film launched in Schlöndorff’s hometown Wiesbaden and in Mainz.
“David wants precise instructions as defined by the Stanislavsky system – I hope we will always find them.”
Günter Grass often met with the actors at the end of the day to speak with them about their roles. He gave his opinions about the reactions, motivations, and emotions of the figures, and made it clear why they act the way they do, and what is going on in the mind of the characters.
“I don’t understand explanations anyway. I just play what I read in the in the script, he says in his Viennese accent.” (Schlöndorff 2011, p. 287) – Fritz Hakl is an artist for more than 20 years at the time of the shooting. As a person with restricted growth he was unsuitable for the field work at his home farm, so he went to the Prater. David Bennent, in contrast, absorbed every information that he could get hold of. For Schlöndorff he was more than just an actor. “He is a medium. He has his own problems, similar to the ones of Oskar Matzerath, therefore he seems so authentic. He does not play Oskar Matzerath, he is Oskar.” (ibid., p. 288). The 25-year-old Katharina Thalbach too wanted to “‘play’ at every cost” and said about herself that she “can never get enough.” (ibid., p. 296)
For DIE BLECHTROMMEL (The Tin Drum) and DIE FÄLSCHUNG 1981 (Circle of Deceit), Schlöndorff had the pleasure to work with the French composer Maurice Jarre (*13.09.1924, +29.03.2009), who won an Oscar® for his music for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (Lawrence von Arabien,1962), DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (Doktor Schiwago, 1965) and A PASSAGE TO INDIA (Reise nach Indien, 1984).
The musical background of the BLECHTROMMEL (The Tin Drum) has many functions, so Schlöndorff. The music should provide mood, increase emotions and remind one of childhood days (…) it should be archaic, like a nightmare, banal and frightening, just like the Nazi era. The music may help to provide a state of uncertainty between reality and fantasy, meaning, to let the reality seem imaginary and the imagination seem real. The instrumentation should feel like right out of Oscar’s world: simple, childlike and crude.
All of these demands could be realised by Maurice Jarre, who composed the soundtrack, and by Friedrich Meyer, who arranged the diegetic music (music whose source is visible in the image). The background music increases the atmosphere in a special manner and provides attention for the diverse themes and figures of the film.
The extraordinary about the acoustic backdrop in the BLECHTROMMEL (The Tin Drum) is the excessive use of diegetic music. Music belongs, not just due to the omnipresent drumming of Oskar, to the everyday life of the protagonists. Whistling, singing, playing the piano, trumpets and the harmonica belong to the musical scenery of Oskar’s childhood. But not only is music played in the family. Meyer also integrated various marching songs of the parading SA-groups into the soundtrack. The appearance of the circus is also accompanied with the corresponding circus music. Through this the music is formed on a diegetic level by Oskar’s drumming, various folksongs, opera pieces, marches, and contemporary reminiscences. The diegetic music plays a special role during a rally of the NSDAP on the Maiwiese. In this scene the music has influence on the action and is used to direct what is happening. Oskar shows his protest at the rally as usual with his loud drumming. Through his constant play of three quarter-note beats he is able to redirect the Fanfare and the Badenweiler-Marsch played in four quarter-note beats by the SA-orchestra. The musicians start to follow his beat and consequently start playing the waltz An der schönen blauen Donau by Johann Strauß. Oskar is therefore able to turn the mass rally of the Nazis into a folk festival-like dance event. The attempt of the army officers to march to the new three quarter-note beat seems absurd. The music creates a comic effect.
The diegetic music is mostly created by songs. This includes the chant Maria zu lieben ist allzeit mein Sinn, Wer uns getraut from the opera Der Zigeunerbaron by Johann Strauß, the hit song Kann denn Liebe Sünde sein? from Zarah Leander and the famous worker song Wann wir schreiten Seit am Seit from 1914. These songs play various functions within the film, they not only provide the mood, but also comment the action with their lyrics. For example, Oskar’s reciting of the lyrics of the song Maria zu Lieben ist allzeit mein Sinn seems ambiguous as he just discovered his affection for the girl Maria (cf. Schneider 1990).
A central function of the music is the conveyance of emotions. Oskar utilizes the music for his protests and takes to his drum the moment he realizes a wrong doing, when something troubles him or if he wants to show his resistance to all authority. Examples are his mother’s affair with her cousin Jan Bronski and the intrigues of the Nazis. Not only does Oskar express his emotions through music: his mother too lets the music speak for her in various situations. In the beginning of the film she expresses her emotions for her cousin Jan through the song Wer uns getraut. In a different scene Agnes uses music to show her protest: in reaction to the order of her husband to eat the cooked eel and his incapability to accept her reluctant attitude, she rushes to the piano and starts to play the Jägerchor from the opera Freischütz. Through her loud singing she tries to drown out the arguments of her husband. It is however ironic that she chooses exactly this song, as the Jägerchor usually expresses the joy of hunting animals. Furthermore, Jarre’s composed soundtrack is supposed to create epic relations. Parallel to Oskar’s falls (in the beginning and at the end of the film) the same music is played respectively, and therefore serves as dramaturgic parentheses.
Schlöndorff’s wanted musical state of uncertainty between reality and fantasy is achieved through Maurice Jarre’s music, composed on a non-diegetic level (music that can only be heared by the audience). The events are imbedded by two scenes on the potato field.
In addition a symphonic orchestra piece is played, enriched with the exotic sound of a fujara. The extraordinary sound of the fujara combined with the fairytale line Once upon a time… , spoken by Oskar, provokes that the audience feels lost in reverie, looses the feeling for time and space, and the events in the film just look like a fairytale. The sounds of the fujara are closly tied to the image of the grandmother and her potatoes. Playing the fujara sounds like the earth would breath, so Jarre (cf. Brown 1994, p. 312). Just as Schlöndorff desires, the foreign sound of the fujara lets the image seem archaic and makes the grandmother appear to be the mother archetype of the earth (Schlöndorff 1979, p.119).
Two recurring musical themes are the classical symphonic piece played with violins and trumpets for the secret meetings between Agnes and Jan Bronski, and the melody for the toy merchant Markus. This music that sounds like a musical clock is played whenever Oskar enters his store. The melody has the function of illustrating Oskar’s childishness and innocence. Also a composition in style of Chopins Mazurken, which is heard during the destruction of the Polish post office, is part of the soundtrack. The peaceful sounds of the piano are in extreme contrast to the loud noises of the war backdrop, the injured people and the destroyed buildings. Especially in contrast to the pictures the music is a symbol of the indestructible and steadfastness Polish soul (cf. Schneider 1990, p. 269).
Brown, Royal S. (1994). Overtones and Undertones. Reading Film Music. California: University of California Press.
Schneider, Norbert Jürgen (1990). Handbuch Filmmusik I. Musikdramaturgie im Neuen Deutschen Film. München: Verlag Ölschläger.
Schlöndorff, Volker (1979). “Die Blechtrommel” Tagebuch einer Verfilmung. Darmstadt und Neuwied: Luchterhand GmbH.
Schlöndorff, Volker (2008). http://www.volkerschloendorff.com/personen/maurice-jarre/ (10.03.2014).
“24 February: It could no longer be delayed. Today we had to show the film to Günter Grass. As the lights went back on he said: An incredible load… I forgot the book and saw a film. I would call it a realistic fairytale. Have that really been two and a half hours?” (Schlöndorff 2011, p. 301)
The German press was cautious in their first reaction shortly after the premier viewing: Schlöndorff has achieved a “carefully made film“, that comes along “well worked on, with many pretty scenes, brilliant actors“, however “all in all only well manufactured, that kind of quality craftwork that diligently tries to achieve art but stays mere handcraft” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 28.4.1979). Hans C. Blumenberg characterised Schlöndorff’s project as “brave or crazy (or both) enough” (Die Zeit) to take on the adaptation of Die Blechtrommel. The film is a waste, but “not bad, in the contrary“, but Schlöndorff is the ideal man who “knows about film adaptations of German literature […], next to Fassbinder without doubt the most perfect cinema artisan in this country.” Although he could not convince the feuilleton thoroughly, the reactions of the audience dispel his initial doubts about the success of the film. Shortly after its world premiere The Tin Drum is played with great success as the German entry in the competition of the International Film Festival in Cannes. The film wins the Palme d’Or (Die Goldene Palme) together with Francis Ford Coppola’s anti-war film APOCALYPSE NOW (USA 1979). The sensation is perfect after he gets awarded the Bundesfilmpreis (German Film Award) in 1979: DIE BLECHTROMMEL (The Tin Drum) wins the Oscar® for Best Foreign Film – as the first German film after World War II.