Film Education

Cinema and Literature: “The Tin Drum”

“THE TIN DRUM” : A Comparision between the Novel(1959) by Guntar Grass and the Film(1979) by Volker Schlondorff

Bergman believed that cinema should be independent of literature. However, more often than not, literature has inspired films and some of them have turned out to be great films indeed. One such film is ‘The Tin Drum’ (Die Blechtrommel), a German language film made by Volker Schlöndorff in 1979. It is based on nobel prize winner Gunter Grass’s novel of the same name.  Grass’s work was a pioneer in European magical realism, was widely read and translated into many languages. Hence, the prospect of adapting it to celluloid was a very challenging one. It is generally agreed that Volker had succeeded in justifying the text and his film is a marvel on its own.  It received Palme d’Or at Cannes(jointly with ‘Apocalypse Now’) in 1979. I would like to present a comparative study between the book and the film, highlighting the major differences between them:

1)      The novel in three parts traces a period starting from before the rise of Hitler to after his fall and the reconstruction of Germany. The major events however take place not in Germany, but in Danzig which geographically lies between Germany and Poland and has often been shuffled from being a free state to being under the German or the Polish rule. This is the focus for the first 2 parts. However, in the 3rd part of the novel, the focus shifts to Dusseldorf in Germany and reflects the problems Grass himself faced due to the displacement and his inability to adapt to postwar Germany.

The movie on the other hand restricts itself to the first 2 parts of the book and concerns itself with the rise and fall of Nazism on Danzig. It successfully maintains an ambience of black humor that is a characteristic of the book.

2)      The book starts with 30 year old Oskar in a mental asylum, narrating the story of his life.  For a major part of the novel, Oskar himself is the narrator. However, in the 3rd part, the onus of narration shifts to the warden and a friend of Oskar’s. Through these passages narrated by others, Grass has hinted that the protagonist could be an unreliable narrator, thereby playing with our perception. This aspect of the novel has been generally understood as a metaphor for the inherent indeterminacy of the period of Hitler’s Nazi reign. Moreover, if we consider Oskar’s unreliability, it could challenge the very premise of magical realism. This sort of a literary experimentation adds to the credibility of the novel apart from its importance as an allegory.

In the film however, this unreliability of narration is omitted along with the 3rd part of the book. It also begins with the narration of Oskar, but the director deliberately eludes the part of the asylum. The omission of the 3rd part of the book in the movie is an apt choice in my opinion, since the premise of the film is the chronicle of Danzig and a satire on Nazism. The depiction of Oskar as an unreliable narrator would have diverted the theme of the movie to a large extent.

3)      Oskar’s drums and his drumming action come across as a unspoken language of protest. Apart from this, they serve a few important purposes in the novel. Firstly they act as a chronicle of his life and events surrounding him. In the book, it is mentioned that, all the old broken drums are stored in the cellar of their house, each with a number label. A diary is maintained in the cellar which records the life span of each of them, i.e the time during which they were functional. In his narrative, Oskar often mentions drumming up past events. Therefore his drumming also acts as a reconstruction of people and events that have gone by. Secondly, his drum is a means to induce chaos in order. The Nazi party gatherings at the rostrums are disrupted by his incessant drum beating. He makes them dance to his rhythm, thereby breaking down the orderliness of the Nazis.

The first utility of the drum is not present in the movie. However the other aspect of the drum is brilliantly translated to celluloid. The sequence of Oskar hiding under the rostrum, playing his drum from there, the crowd and even the leaders drifting into a waltz in spite of themselves, is one of the most memorable sequences in the movie. This phenomenon of relapsing into disorderliness, or rather a higher order consisting of waltz rhythm is a satirical reference to the imposed artificiality of the Nazi regime under Hitler, which is easily broken down through human instinct.

4)      Oskar’s abilities with his voice are the most significant elements of magical realism in the novel. According to the book, Oskar’s voice is capable of generating two types of sounds, one a high pitched scream that can shatter glass, another an inaudible frequency with which, he can silently cut through glass. We need to look at the two of them separately. The incidents of shattering glass come across as expressions of fury, and happen whenever Oskar gives vent to his anger.  The silent glass-cutting voice and its consequences on the other hand, serve to symbolize an important aspect of history known as ‘Kristallnacht’. In the book, Oskar describes that during winter, at the dead of the night, he would sneak out and use his inaudible voice to make circular incisions in shop windows and then use the power of his voice to topple the incised portions. These shops would contain tempting materials such as jewelry or thick fur coats(tempting for someone who is freezing on a winter night) etc. He would wait in the dark and observe the passers-by, most of who would be tempted to take them away. He called this game ‘playing the tempter’.  This activity resulted in broken glass windows.   ‘Kristallnacht’, also referred to as the ‘Night of Broken Glass’, or ‘Reichskristallnacht’, was a series of coordinated attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and parts of Austria on 9–10 November 1938, carried out by SA paramilitary and civilians. German authorities looked on without intervening. The attacks left the streets covered with broken glass from the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues, thereby earning such a name.

In the movie however, Oskar can mostly scream and shatter glass. The events of Oskar playing the tempter are not present; hence the metaphor of ‘Kristallnacht’ is also lost. However, the actual events of ‘Kristallnacht’ are illustrated through the example of Sisigmund Markus and his toy shop.

The events of shattering glass are portrayed diligently and their relation with Oskar’s rage is commendably elucidated.

5)      The phenomenon of Oskar’s remaining physically stunted during the Nazi reign and accidentally induced into an unnatural growth phase after the end of Nazi reign is, according to me, a metaphor for the oppression of the non-Germans in Danzig during the Nazi rule and the half-hearted reconstruction of Germany in the postwar period, from the perspective of the book. In general, Oskar’s magical powers, his sexual prowess and his adulthood in an apparently child-like outward appearance are a metaphor for the hidden horrors of the Nazi regime. According to the 3rd part of the book, he looses his powers and even his potency, after he starts growing. This could very well symbolize the downfall of the Third Reich and the plight of postwar Germany.

However, since the movie ends with part 2 of the book, the problems of New Germany do not come into its context. From the perspective of the movie, the metaphor of stunted growth will have the same implication as in the novel. However, the phenomenon of Oscar growing up can have only one interpretation (since the problems of that growth phase are not touched upon in the movie), the liberation of Danzig and the downfall of Nazi party. The metaphor for the horrors of Nazi regime would also apply here.

6)      Finally, I would like to point out one improvement in the movie as compared to the book, based on my observations. Regarding the incident of the eels, in the novel, Agnes refuses to eat the eels and Alfred throws them in the dustbin to console her. In the movie however, Jan and Alfred persuade her to eat the eels. Agnes’s consequent fetish for eating fish that ultimately results in her untimely demise is thus better reasoned in the movie than in the book

This is not an exhaustive list of differences between the novel and the film. However, we must accept the film as an independent work of art and appreciate it from that standpoint. Whenever a novel is adapted into a film, the director’s interpretation of the narrative makes certain deviations or omissions necessary. However, the most important aspect for such a film is to capture the core spirit of the book. In this regard, Volker Schlöndorff has shone brightly, making this movie a part of the timeless world classics.


The Author was invited by me to write this post

About the Author Riddhiman Basu: 

A software engineer by profession, yet an individual with varied passions. Literature and Music have been his passions since childhood. He has had formal training in Indian Classical music as well as Rabindrasangeet. Cinema as a passion came later, but soon caught up with the others. Starting with the likes of Ray and Ghatak, he has now moved on to the arena of world cinema.

References for the Article:





4 Comments so far
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Tin Drum is one of my favorite books of all times, but I’m not a huge fan of the movie. The book is incredibly layered, as is the character of Oscar. The movie loses out on that, and Oscar looks (and sounds) like a tantrummy child for most parts. I don’t feel we get a good enough view inside his head.
Brilliant analysis by Riddhiman Basu. Very well written 🙂

Comment by Amritorupa Kanjilal

Amritorupa, Thanks for your response and sharing your thoughts

Comment by oorvazi

Thanks a lot Amritorupa for your appreciation :). To be honest, the film captures part of the novel, so those who have read the book first would feel a lot choped off from the film. But if seen independently, the film would stand out for its cinematic quality

Comment by Riddhiman Basu

Amazing analysis, congratulations

Comment by Marc

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