Tin Drum, The (1979): Volker Schlöndorff’s Oscar and Cannes Fest Winner, Adaptation of Günter Grass 1959 Novel

Volker Schlöndorff directed The Tin Drum, a compellingly bizarre, strikingly eccentric adaptation of Günter Grass’ 1959 novel of the same title.

The ambitious, if not entirely satisfying screenplay, was co-written by Schlöndorff, Jean-Claude Carrière (Bunuel’s reliable collaborator), and Franz Seitz.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

The Tin Drum
Die Blechtrommel.jpg

Original film poster


The film won the Palme d’Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Fest and the 1989 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Narrative Structure:

In 1899, Joseph Kolaizcek, the grandfather of Oskar Matzerath, is pursued by the police through rural Kashubia. He hides underneath the skirts of a young woman, Anna Bronski. After sex, she tries to hide her emotions, as the troops pass close by. She later gives birth to their daughter, who is Oskar’s mother. Joseph evades the authorities for a year, but when found again, he either drowns or escapes to America and becomes a millionaire.

Anna’s daughter Agnes has two lovers, her cousin Jan Bronski, a Polish Post Office worker, and Alfred Matzerath, a chef whom she marries. Agnes gives birth to a son, Oskar, whose parentage is uncertain; Oskar believes he is Jan’s son.

In 1927, on Oskar’s third birthday, he is given a tin drum. Reflecting on the antics of his drunken parents and friends, he decides to stop growing and throws himself down the cellar stairs. From that day on, he does not grow at all.

Oskar can shatter glass with his voice, an ability he often uses whenever he is upset. Oskar’s drumming causes the members of a Nazi rally to start dancing. During a visit to the circus, Oskar befriends Bebra, a performing dwarf who chose to stop growing at age 10.

When Alfred, Agnes, Jan and Oskar are on the beach, they see an eel-picker collecting eels from a horse’s head used as bait. The sight makes Agnes vomit repeatedly. Alfred buys some of the eels and prepares them for dinner. When he insists that Agnes eat them, she becomes distraught and retreats to the bedroom. Jan enters and comforts her, all within earshot of Oskar, hiding in the closet. She calmly returns to the dinner table and eats the eels.

Over the next few days, she binges on fish. Anna Bronski helps reveal that Agnes is worried her pregnancy is due to her relations with Jan. In anger, Agnes vows that the child will never be born. She dies, though the cause is never revealed. At the funeral, Oskar encounters Sigismund Markus, the kindly Jewish toy seller who supplies him with replacement drums, and who was also in love with Agnes. Markus is ordered by two of the mourners to leave because he is Jewish; Nazism is on the rise, and the Jewish and Polish residents of Danzig are under increasing pressure. Markus later commits suicide after his shop is vandalized and a synagogue is burned down by SA men.

On September 1, 1939, Oskar and Jan go looking for Kobyella, who can repair his drum. Jan slips into the Polish Post Office, despite Nazi cordon, and participates in armed standoff against the Nazis. During the ensuing battle, Kobyella is fatally shot and Jan is wounded. They play Skat until Kobyella dies and the Germans capture the building. Oskar is taken home, while Jan is arrested and later executed.

Alfred hires Maria, a girl of 16, to work in his shop. Oskar seduces Maria, but later discovers Alfred having sex with her. Oskar bursts into the room, makes Alfred ejaculate inside her (when he was expected to pull out), causing Maria to become angry at Alfred when he blames Oskar for inadvertent insemination.

While rinsing her vagina to remove the deposited semen, she and Oskar fight, and he hits her in the groin. She later gives birth to a son, who Oskar is convinced is his.

Oskar also has a sexual relationship with Lina Greff, the wife of the local grocer and scoutmaster. It is implied that Lina was sexually frustrated as her husband preferred to spend more time with the Hitler Youth boys. Lina’s husband later commits suicide, after an official from the Nazi regime catches him ‘playing’ with those boys.

During World War II, Oskar meets Bebra and Roswitha, another dwarf performer in Bebra’s troupe. Oskar decides to join them, using his glass-shattering voice as his act. Oskar and Roswitha have an affair, but she is killed by artillery fire during the Allied invasion of Normandy.

When Oskar returns home, much of the city has been destroyed and the Russians are fast approaching. Oskar gives Maria’s three-year-old son Kurt a tin drum like his own. The Russians break into the cellar where the family is hiding. Some of them gang-rape Lina. Alfred is killed by a soldier after swallowing and choking violently on his Nazi party pin. Later Matzerath’s shop goes to Mariusz Fajngold, a Jewish survivor of Treblinka who also takes care of Alfred’s funeral.

During Alfred’s burial, Oskar decides to grow up, and throws his drum into the grave. As he does, Kurt throws a stone at his head and he falls into the grave. Afterward, an attendee announces Oskar is growing again. The family, apart from Anna Bronski, leave for the West.

The film was shot in West Germany including at the Spandau Studios, with some street scenes in Gdańsk. The Polish communist authorities gave the crew little time since the novel itself had been banned.

Schlöndorff was authorized by Grass himself during the preproduction and the script writing.

David Bennent was chosen as the role of Oskar when Schlöndorff was discussing with a doctor the possibility of a child whose growth stops at an early age, and the doctor brought up the son of actor Heinz Bennent, whom Schlöndorff was friends with.

Critical Status:

Some reviewers criticized what they claimed was a rambling, diffuse text (a function perhaps of the novel’s epic quality), suggesting, like the Washington Post, that “Oskar doesn’t have a personality forceful enough to unify the continuity or replace the narrative voice and complex of meanings that gave the book intellectual vitality and authority.”

Others compared the film to Citizen Kane, in its “combination of stunning logistics and technique and of humanistic content that’s terrifically affecting.”

At the 1979 Cannes Film Fest, it was jointly awarded the Palme d’Or, along with Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The Tin Drum was the first film directed by a German to win the Palme d’Or. In 1980, it became the first German film to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

In 2003, The New York Times placed the film on its Best 1000 Movies Ever list.

Commercial Hit

The Tin Drum was one of the most financially successful films, earning 25 million marks at the German box office.

In the U.S., New World Pictures paid $400,000 for the rights, and the film became the highest-grossing German film in the U.S., grossing $4 million, beating the record set the year earlier by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun.

David Bennent as Oskar Matzerath
Mario Adorf as Alfred Matzerath
Angela Winkler as Agnes Matzerath
Daniel Olbrychski as Jan Bronski
Katharina Thalbach as Maria Matzerath
Tina Engel as Anna Koljaiczek
Berta Drews as older Anna Koljaiczek
Heinz Bennent as Greff
Ernst Jacobi as Löbsack
Andréa Ferréol as Lina Greff
Charles Aznavour as Sigismund Markus
Roland Teubner as Joseph Koljaiczek
Tadeusz Kunikowski as Uncle Vinzenz
Ilse Pagé as Gretchen Scheffler
Werner Rehm as Scheffler
Käte Jaenicke as Mother Truczinski
Helmut Brasch as Old Heilandt


Directed by Volker Schlöndorff
Written by Schlöndorff, Jean-Claude Carrière, Franz Seitz. based on The Tin Drum novel by Günter Grass
Produced by Franz Seitz, Anatole Dauman
Cinematography Igor Luther
Edited by Suzanne Baron
Music by Maurice Jarre

Production: Jadran Film, Franz Seitz Filmproduktion

Distributed by United Artists (West Germany)
New World Pictures (US)

Release dates: May 3, 1979 (Germany); September 19, 1979 (France)

Running time: 142 minutes; 162 minutes (Director’s cut)
Languages: German, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Russian
Budget $3 million
Box office: $13 million (25 million German Marks)
$4 million (US)