If childhood is the age of innocence, what happens when all innocence dies? Or worse, what happens when inhumanity is passed off as innocence? Volker Schlöndorff’s startling adaptation of Günter Grass’ novel explores those questions with great imagination, wry humor and brutal honesty, and this two-disc set highlights the considerable challenges facing this achievement.
In the film, little Oskar is born in Danzig between world wars. He’s given a toy drum on his third birthday but is so appalled by the behavior of grown-ups that he resolves not to grow up. As Nazism flourishes in his country, he sees his elders embrace a kind of emotional fascism, resorting to deception and cruelty in their relationships, while at the same time attending rallies and donning green shirts. Banging on his drum, Oskar is the semi-detached observer of it all, noting, “There once was a gullible people who believed in Santa Claus. But he wasn’t Santa Claus; he was the gas man!”
The artistry of the film is itself filled with compelling contradictions: gorgeously photographed images of grotesquery and sensitive portrayals of insensitive characters. Schlöndorff’s eye for detail and sly use of idiomatic film language—from keystone cops-style humor to newsreel mockumentary—give the film additional depth and richness. His visual translation of Grass’ mix of stark realism and comic fantasy is truly brilliant. Supplementary material on the collaboration between Schlöndorff and Grass, as well as a documentary on the controversial lawsuit the film caused when released in Oklahoma offer an additional perspective on its importance.