Volker Schlondorff’s adaptation of the legendary Gunter Grass novel is a surreal journey through Weimar and Nazi Germany. Told through the story of little Alfred (Mario Adorf), a boy who, after seeing how disgusting adults are with their sex and drunkenness, and responsibilities, decides at the age of 3 to not grow anymore. Instead, he drums his tin drum, screams enough to break glass, and floats through life, getting older and maturing but not growing. Eventually, he finds others who have done the same thing and run a circus troupe around their various gifts. Alfred may or may not be the son of two different fathers, one of whom is a Polish patriot and the other a Nazi, both of whom his mother loves. She eventually dies by eating a tremendous amount of tinned fish. Meanwhile, his Nazi father takes up with another woman after the death of his mom, who it seems Alfred impregnates. During World War II, he goes off with the little people troupe, entertaining Nazis but eventually getting caught in the war. The film ends at the war’s end, rather than continue on to the postwar world like the book. Probably a good idea since the film is pretty literary and is long as it is.
Ultimately, this is a surreal look at life in Nazi Germany. Who does take responsibility in such a nation? Alfred’s main contribution is destroying a Nazi rally through his drumming, which convinces people to dance. Why wouldn’t anyone choose to remain a child? It’s also something of a German fantasy, perhaps one that was necessary, of how their parents and grandparents not only lived in such a nation but often actively supported it and then of course didn’t talk about it for decades after the Nazi defeat. The 1960s and 1970s was a great period of German leftists demanding some accountability and public discussion. The book influenced that process, but the film visualized it and articulated it for a new generation.
As a film though, I don’t think it holds together all that well plot wise. There’s just a lot going on here, including a lot that has to remain unexplained. I confess to not being a huge fan of the surreal in general. Yet it’s hard to imagine a better version of the film. It’s craftfully made and well-acted, just a very difficult and complex story to film.