Why we should screen The Tin Drum at Chronic Youth 2018

I originally wrote this article to convince my fellow film programmers that Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum should be screened at the film festival we were programming: Chronic Youth 2018, at the Barbican.

The Tin Drum
David Bennent as Oskar in The Tin Drum

You tried pitching this to the gang in September. Why are you still pitching it?

‘Cos now I’ve actually seen the film, so I can pitch it more convincingly. I’m certain that this is a perfect choice for a festival whose theme is “Chronic Youth” — not just because it fits the theme, but for various other reasons too. And many of the films currently popular on the spreadsheet are pretty new; the festival would benefit from a couple of old films.

I also recently realised that it speaks not only to young people — it also reflects Remainers’ concerns about Brexit, and the difficulties of knowing your country and being comfortable with your national identity.

Let’s tackle the Brexit angle later. How does the film fit the Chronic Youth theme?

All sorts of ways. “Chronic” relates to a malady that persists for a very long time: physical or mental. The Tin Drum’s protagonist is mentally and physically young — chronically so. He is born in 1924, with the mental abilities (but not the moral compass) of a mature adult. At the age of three he decides to stop growing, and appears to the outside world as a perpetual three-year-old who loves to play his tin drum. But it soon becomes clear that the increasingly fascist society he’s living in is having growing pains of its own.

So which is more chronically young — an apparent infant who screams and bangs his way through life, acting with a sense of absurd entitlement but in possession of an unnerving, unsettling power; or a country that’d existed for less than a century, constantly getting into fights, and acting with a sense of absurd entitlement but in possession of an unnerving, unsettling power?

The Tin Drum2

Tl;dr — not only does the film capture “chronic youth” in a physical and mental sense, it also captures chronic youth as relating to an individual and a country. That’s a hell of a lot of theme boxes ticked.

OK, so it definitely fits the theme. But I tried watching it, and frankly, I didn’t get on with it. The kid is creepy — at one point he has weird sexual relations with a woman who becomes his stepmother. I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, I don’t feel it represents me, and ultimately I’m not sure what this film has to say to a London audience in 2018.

Look, I won’t deny that this film is kinda weird. I actually find Oskar, the kid, strangely sympathetic — there is something unsettling about him, but he comes across as less pathetic than the adults around him, and his wilful weirdness shows his refusal to live with the fascist rules of 1930s Germany while still being able to indulge in the experimentation and epiphanies of youth — all while grappling with his own possible fascist tendencies.

The film is also very relevant to today’s audience. Günter Grass himself said: “A great deal of Oskar Matzerath is to be found in today’s young generation. Many would like to escape the process of becoming an adult and its inherent responsibilities. The figure of Oskar Matzerath is a figure of today.” Thanks to rocketing living costs on the one hand and rapidly increasing life expectancies on the other, many of London’s youths might not want (or be able) to “grow up” as quickly as their parents did.

And it isn’t just the youth angle. When Chronic Youth 2018 hits the screens, we’ll be exactly a year away from Brexit (March 2019). The referendum exposed a country unsure of its identity, and with Scotland threatening to leave again and Northern Ireland facing serious border questions, The Tin Drum’s anxieties about Kashubia, Poland and Germany — and who belonged to which country — have never been more relevant. The film reminds us that we can approach crises of national identity with humour and irony as well as po-faces and grandstanding.

Regarding the film’s likeability: does a film have to be likeable to be right for this festival? I see our remit as featuring movies that not only capture the theme as closely as possible, but challenge and provoke our audience. I reckon, if it ends up getting shown, not all its viewers will end up liking it; some might actively dislike it. But I’m confident many will be gratified, refreshed and inspired by its uncompromising refusal to avoid taboos or adopt standard movie tropes.

The Tin Drum3

At a time when “developed countries” like the US, the UK and France are flirting increasingly with fascism, it pays to have a film which, rather than spouting liberal pieties and preaching to the converted, actually affirms the right of the underdog to be weird and downright immoral in the face of a society gradually encroaching on civil liberties.

Isn’t it a bit long, though?

It is admittedly much longer than the two-hour slot allotted. But I’m confident we could persuade the Barbican to let it run in the evening (as Suzy Gillett mentioned a few weeks ago, such exceptions are possible), because I think it’ll be a smash hit.

What makes you think people will flock to see a weird West German film from the ’70s?

First of all, this is London — “weird West German film from the ’70s” are basically magic words. And there’s no denying that this is a popular film. It’s widely seen as a cult classic, it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1980, and any movie that ties with Apocalypse Now for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in the year of its release has to be something special.

But there are four other key reasons. Firstly, we’d be showing the director’s cut, which very rarely gets screened. It’s not even available on DVD — only on Blu-Ray, and most people don’t have Blu-Ray players. Secondly, it’s a larger-than-life movie, and its effect is only truly achieved on the big screen — it looks almost a bit silly on a small screen. Thirdly, it’s a film that easily inspires debate, and the Barbican is a great venue for debating movies with friends and strangers alike. Fourthly, I want to make this a special screening, ideally with a Q&A. I’ve previously interviewed its screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carrière, about all the films he did with Luis Buñuel, and he was really keen to chat. We could try to get him to come to London again for this purpose. He’s 86, though, so I’d also try contacting director Volker Schlöndorff (78), cinematographer Igor Luther (75) and editor Suzanne Baron (er… 90, but maybe she’s still spry!). If these fell through I’d try getting well-known champions of the film to come and discuss it.

I hope this article has helped convince you that The Tin Drum is utterly perfect for this festival!


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