"Ich spielte meine trommel für ihn, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum!" Peculiar how this kid really does stay a little drummer boy, no matter how extensively the film covers his life, like, in real time, but it's not entirely as perky as a Christmas carol, by which I mean this film isn't especially lively in pacing. Now, in terms of tone, yeah, this is fairly colorful, or at least about as colorful as you can make comedy this black, and I don't guess that's too surprising, seeing as how this film is partly presented to you by Yugoslavia. 1995's "Underground" was not the first time Yugoslavia showed off how it can make the horrors of WWII fun, although this film is mainly German, which can make it either grittier or, well, more surreal. Specifically, this film is West German, so if it's going to remind people about what got the Krauts so thrown all over the place, it might want to inspire a few chuckles to go with the tears, because nothing is funnier than a kid and his drum trying to reason with Nazis. He might not have been able to bring a corrupt country to light, but he did enlighten me to the fact that a live album by David Gilmour was not the only interesting thing involving Gdańsk since WWII. So yeah, this film is pretty entertaining, but it's also too long, at least to comfortably juggle everything that's going on.
Although the jarring focal inconsistencies peak with an intro which takes too long to introduce, not the lead, but the lead's family, this film's narrative is episodic in structure, and storytelling was always going to find difficulty in making the transitions between layers organic. The length of the final product exacerbates the challenge, as the excessiveness to the structuring further drags out each segment, until the film's focus goes aimless, if not falls into unevenness, with the tone of the film. Dramatic tensions, if not the occasional deeply disturbing image (Oh, that beached horse head scene just had to give Francis Ford Coppola the chills) and, for that matter, story content (Who says that an eleven-year-old is too young to portray a sexual relationship), punctuate a colorfully comic attitude which defuses dramatic momentum about as much as storytelling's at least keeping consistent in some sort of cheesiness. The humor and fluff are, of course, the cheesiest aspects of the film, at least when they fall flat as borderline overwrought, but even the dramatics, however limited, get melodramatic, being both too far out there to buy, and too grounded to be embraced as part of the film's questionable surrealism. About as much as anything, this film is surreal, and often too much so, with anything from a lead whose inability to grow up is bizarre, and whose obsession with drumming and ability to scream in a glass-shattering register are gratingly obnoxious, to many other over-the-top touches which are ostensibly satirical, but ultimately too questionable for you to get a grip on substance, in concept, without all of the overstylized directorial touches which exacerbate the surrealism. I guess you could say that there are natural shortcomings here, but the subject matter itself is actually sweepingly worthy, it's just that the ideas behind the handling of this film are so problematic, whether they apply to focus, or pacing, or tone. The final product is hard to get invested in, but with patience, you'd be pressed to not be entertained, maybe even immersed, through solid art direction.
This period piece actually doesn't pay much mind to the changes in the world surrounding the lead, but if the film does make an attempt to sell you on its setting, then Nikos Perakis' art direction does what it can to draw you in, even if it plays only a light role in bringing life to this film's subject matter. You have to take what you can get, because even though the narrative is over-the-top with its surrealism and other fluffy aspects, the themes and layers behind it are quite worthy, with an audaciously offbeat look at coming of age, and war, as well as a potential for dramatic weight that doesn't appear to be within the vision of Volker Schlöndorff, Jean-Claude Carrière and Franz Seitz. No, this screenwriting trio is more focused on surreal style and dark humor that primarily satirizes the respectable formula for the usual wartime biopic, and that's a shame, for so much depth is betrayed by the questionable fluff, in addition to the bloating and inconsistencies in focus and tone, and yet, the script still carries its highlights, in colorful humor and characterization, livening things up and holding your attention. Really, enough of your attention ought to be held by the sheer originality of this script, which goes to such great lengths to freshen things up that it ends up cheesing things up, but is still morbidly interesting, with moments of depth that go anchored by the performances. Now, everyone has charisma, if not dramatic effectiveness, but it ultimately comes down to the very young lead of David Bennent, who is handed a bizarre role and amazingly manages to make it work by subtly, but surely selling the emotional and mental maturing of the Oskar Matzerath character, and how it is nonetheless stunted by a lack of physical maturing. This performance is mighty endearing, but it perhaps wouldn't be so much so if it wasn't so well-orchestrated by Schlöndorff's performance as director, because no matter how ludicrous the film is, Schlöndorff sells what he can, at least in the sense that his tongue-in-cheek attitude allows you to embrace plenty of the surrealism in the context of this plot, and therefore embrace the heights in drama. At the very least, Schlöndorff never allows this problematically paced affair limp too far out, drawing your attention to what is truly done right in this drama by keeping entertainment value consistent, even if that's the only thing kept consistent in this somewhat misguided dark comedy.
All in all, focus gets to be inconsistent through all of the episodic and draggy storytelling, while tonal inconsistencies that at least keep consistent in cheesiness, and an already questionable story and style concept make it too hard to take the final product seriously enough for it to transcend underwhelmingness, but through immersive art direction, intriguing subject matter, uniquely colorful writing, charismatic and convincing acting, - especially from lead David Bennent - and lively direction, Volker Schlöndorff's "The Tin Drum" stands as an entertaining and sometimes effective, if questionably conceived satire on coming of age during wartime.
2.5/5 - Fair