One Moment: ‘The Tin Drum’

Most films try to tell a cohesive story.  However, there are moments within them that tell small, nearly self-contained tales.  My new column, One Moment, looks at these miniature instances and how they work independently and within the context of the film’s larger story.

People do not seek to be controlled.  They fall victim to those who want power, those who wish to take from others so they themselves can feel important.  How dictators accomplish this is sadly so simple that it has a pattern.

Imagine you are struggling to make rent.  You have been unemployed for an extended time, you have a family to support, and the brightness you would expect to be waiting on the horizon simply is not there, and may not exist at all.  Enter a charismatic “reformer,” someone who promises you—and the nation—full employment, a sense of purpose, and the promise of working together to solve a common goal.  It is a rosy view of things, one few people could avoid.  So you peek at a flyer, follow its directions to a rally, and wait.  While you wait, there are rows and rows of young men dressed in pristinely pressed uniforms, marching with machine gun precision; it leaves an impression, to say the least.  Yet still you wait.  These people who clearly have it together would not make this massive crowd among you stand around for nothing, would they?  Your curiosity heightens, your stomach might be starting to rumble, maybe you feel your eyelids start to droop.  All the while a patriotic classic from your home country’s past blares on the public address system.  It may be a bit irritating, but there’s a buzz.  You can see it in the people standing next to you; everyone might be antsy, but at least they’re antsy together.  Just before discord can set in, out walks the leader.  He’s a rock star, one ready to take you where you think you want to go.  You figure you’ve waited this long for him, so you may as well hear him out.  From the point you make this decision, you are under his control.

The German people, and specifically The Tin Drum director Volker Schlöndorff, know this phenomenon well.  They saw the way Adolph Hitler rose to power, utilizing tactics like the ones described above to coerce the German populace to do what he wanted by getting to them when they perhaps were not in the proper mindset to think critically about what he was saying.  The pompous rallies, the uniformity, the national unity were all false, a way of hoodwinking a nation; not to be a benevolent, collectivist group working for the common good but to be a set of worker bees to bend to the will of the Queen with the mustache.

Perhaps as a bit of wish fulfillment, Schlöndorff sends his diminutive protagonist, Oskar (David Bennent), beneath the bleachers at a Nazi rally.  Armed with the eponymous drum, Oskar throws a wrench in the Nazi party’s plans.  With a key party leader approaching the platform, a band of young boys plays a victorious marching band tribute to him.  But Oskar, in his perpetual three-year-old state of mind, cannot allow this to happen.  He is a boy who demands to be the center of attention, and he will be damned if he does not get what he feels he deserves.  So he begins to tap away at his drum, obstinate in making sure that he remains off the beat of the song the boys are playing above him.  This upsets the intricately rehearsed music they had planned.  Instead of the brisk, muscular military song they had wanted to play, Oskar’s subversive interjection throws off their rhythm.  Everyone takes notice; the Nazis marching to the platform, the commoners in the crowd, the adult band beside the youths.  The party’s control melts away for just a moment, and the bands begin to play Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube Waltz”.

Hearing this, everyone in the crowd—except, it should be noted, the Nazi establishment—grabs hold of one another and follows the rhythms in a waltz of their own.  Soon, a thunderstorm descends on the festivities, but for that brief moment, Oskar’s fierce individualism had beaten the hive-like mentality that had choked all life from the rally before his interruption.

This is Schlöndorff’s way of saying that human interaction is a must.  Once the crowd’s eyes avert their gaze from a central point—the proto-hype man in Nazi gear speaking from the stage—and instead look at each other, their world changes.  Despite the enticing glamour and uniformity afforded humanity by dictation, it strips away that which makes us human.  The messiness of dealing with one another on that human level, no matter how frustrating it can be, will always be a better alternative to putting up our blinders to follow those whose end goal is to simply have us follow.

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