Thomas Elsaesser who is a famous film theorist, wrote in his renown book “New German Cinema” in page 239 of Chapter 8:
The New German Cinema was no longer new when it began to understand its characters’ past as history also. Many of the films made in the 1960s and early 1970s seemed studiously to avoid reference to any precise temporality of events, and in the case of Herzog rarely featured Germany even as geography, Fassbinder and Wenders, as we saw, initially preferred to explore the colonized state of their protagonists’ consciousness. But asked why American music, comics and movies had been his “life savers” in adolescence,
Twenty years of political amnesia had left a hole: we covered it with chewing gum and Polaroids.
Obviously, the so-called “Twenty years of political amnesia” refer to the years before Hitler governed Germany and the years governed by Hitler. The time is named “the period of the Nazi” by historians or declared “the era of the fatherless” by some psychologist. Indeed, many films produced in the 1960s and early 1970s avoid reference to the events of the nearly two decades of Nazi-rule on purpose. With the climax of the New German Cinema, a number of directors and filmmakers bravely embraced the fatherless society. Fassbinder’s film Die Hochzeit der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun) is but one example of such films. Schloendorff’s Die Blechtrommel (Tin Drum) based on Grass’ novel evolves as the typical film which critically analyses the era of the Nazi, viz. the fatherless society.
The concept of the fatherless society can be explained with the classic Freudian and post-Freudian schools of thought.
According to these psychological theories, father means “authority in individual life”, and the role of the father is important for an individual’s growing. The individual’s sense of his personal identity is generally assumed to be the result of successfully repressing incestuous desires that arise out of the male child’s identification with the father and his subsequent rivalry and conflicts with his father or father’s image, until the choice of a mother-substitute stabilizes the situation and assures the legitimacy of the succeeding generation.
In the absence of a father, a male child does not need to repress his incestuous desires with the potential consequence of incest, broken families and a loss of personal identity.
The film Die Blechtrommel (Tin Drum) should be understood and analysed against this background, and if done so, it clearly emerges as focusing on social realities in Germany between the first and the Second World War, mainly the time of the Republic of Weimar and Nazi.
THE FAMILY OF FATHERLESS
The family is widely acknowledged to be the nucleus of society. Parents pass the rules and values of the society on to their children in order to secure their survival or well-being in that society, and the family assures to continuance of that society.
The film Die Blechtrommel (Tin Drum) tells the story of Oskar and his family, and it is told out of Oskar’s perspective. Oskar is a small boy who decides not to grow any further when he is three years old. Instead, he uses his tin drum to draw the attention of others and to express his feelings.
When analyzing Oskar’s family tree, one realises that none of his closest relatives and himself were not raised by their physical fathers. Matzerath, for example, is considered Oskar’s father, but in fact, he is not his real father. The film alludes that instead, Bronski who is Oskar’s uncle is, at the same time, his father. Oskar is hence Bronski’s and Agnes’ illegitimate child. Likewise, Kurlt is both Oskar’s brother and Oskar’s son. Both Oskar and Kurlt grow up without having real fathers. Only Oskar’s mother Argnice had a more legitimate father. However, he was a gangster and left Oskar’s grandmother when Argnice was 3 months old. So, for most of her life, even Oskar’s mother grew up in a family without a father, i.e. in a family of the fatherless.
As it was discussed earlier, Freud’s psychoanalysis suggests child development is impacted upon by the authority of the father. When conflicting with the repression by his father’s authority, the male child identifies himself and learns to control his otherwise incestuous desires. More generally, the child learns to deal with conflicts in a way that conflicts do not contradict, but shape the co-existence of two personalities. The child is then able to develop a “healthy” personality.
Oskar and his mother, however, both lack the experience of being raised by their physical fathers. According to Freud’s theory, none of them is hence able to develop a healthy personality. Indeed, living under the auspices of both his legitimate and illegitimate fathers, Oskar developed a dual personality. On the one hand, he had such a sober mind that he was well aware of the problems of his family and the society. If Oskar realised a problem he could not solve, he would use his supernatural power, i.e. his crying disability, to break all kinds of glass. On the other hand, Oskar let himself being fooled easily by the Nazi propaganda so that, in the end, he took part in their aggression.
Oskar’s mother grew up without her father’s supervision and did not learn how to deal with men. She hence established sexual relationships to two men, but got torn up between the two so that she committed suicide at last. The story of Oskar and his family is exemplary. It shows how a family with no male parent, i.e. the family of the fatherless, suffers in that the family members develop distorted personalities.
THE CITY OF FATHERLESS
The story of Die Blechtrommel (Tin Drum) takes place the city of Danzig. This city has a peculiar history: Before the First World War, it belonged to Prussia which used to be an Empire and was then a strong state in Germany’s first Republic. After Germany lost the First World War, Prussia was divided into two parts. Western Prussia remained German while the eastern part including Danzig was governed by Poland. Danzig was then renamed and called Gdánsk. However, Poland failed to keep a tight grip on the city although it was an important port to the Baltic Sea. Indeed, Danzig maintained strong links with Germany although its population consisted of Polish people and Germans alike. When Hitler officially gained control over Germany in 1933, he aimed to recover the entire territory of Prussia. He had always strongly admired Prussia’s ethos of militarism and stern discipline. Hitler’s first step was to propose that Danzig should become a sovereign city in 1939, but the Polish government refused. As a consequence, Germany suddenly attacked Poland, which initiated the Second World War. Germany managed to regain control over what used to be Prussia, but was defeated and had to recapitulate in 1945. The film “Tin Drum” described mainly the history by narrating a family’s story during the 20 years--- from 1925 to 1945.
From the historical background of Danzig one can conclude that the city of Danzig in the film Die Blechtrommel(Tin Drum) underwent an identity crisis. At first Danzig belonged to Prussia with the ethos of strong militarism and stern discipline. It then became Polish, but Poland could not conduct its rights there. The city was then invaded by Hitler who occupied it illegally. Under these conditions, the individuals of Danzig lost or did not even develop personalities. As Thomas Elsaesser pointed in the page 240 of the same book:
According to Lasch, a different personality type has emerged who depends for his identity entirely on the approval of others. He tries to secure this approval by making others the mirror of his idealized self and by presenting himself to others with a behavior designed to elicit from them nothing but the image the subject most desires to have of himself.
In short, because of the sudden and harsh changes of which “city fathers” were in power, the citizens of Danzig couldn’t develop their own identities. It was inevitable that the society of Danzig became disordered which is well-reflected by Oskar’s closest family.
Jan Bronski, for example, who is Oskar’s uncle, is a coward. He is very satisfied that he is not qualified to be a soldier and doesn’t take part in the fight against the German oppressors, but hides when the local post office is invaded by German soldiers. Oskar’s father, named Matzerath, is German. He is strong, but foolish. He is aware of the sexual relationship between Bronski and his wife, but does not intervene. Instead, he treats Oskar and his mother with disrespect only provoking the two to get into an incestuous relationship themselves. Oskar’s mother Agnes Matzerath, loves her Polish cousin and not her German husband. She gives birth to Oskar who turns out to be a dwarf at the age of three. She takes this as a kind of punishment and a visible sign of his illegitimacy. The distortions in her sexual relationships and societal pressure make her commit suicide.
Apart from Oskar’s closest family members, the entire population of Danzig seem to be paranoid. A burglar fears persecution of someone else, for example, or the guests at the dinner party held for the birth of Oskar’s younger brother (who, in fact, was his son) entered into a heated debate about how to put other nations to the end as cruelly as possible.
In short, the inhabitants of Danzig lived in an abnormal state of fast-changing or missing city fathers. There was a lack of or illegitimate authorities governing the city. This instability caused the citizens of Danzig to develop problematic personalities. An aggressive and incestuous society emerged in Danzig as the city of the fatherless.
THE ERA OF THE FATHERLESS
It is self-evident that Oskar’s life symbolizes the Era of Germany between the First and Second World War. In the 1920s, Germany was administered by the government of Weimar which was assumed to be a weakening authority. When comparing Weimar with the “mature” Federal Republic of Germany, the Republic of Weimar appears like a powerless and helpless child. In other words, at that time, the nation of Germany lacked powerful “father” to conflict with and to obey. Moreover, Germany was considered a “dwarf” in Western Europe because of its international affairs. It had to recapitulate in the First World War and was the only state held responsible for this war. The reparation costs which resulted thereof were high and provoked high levels of inflation. Taken that Germany was looked down upon by Western Europe, how could German citizens pay respect to their own state?
Freud’s psychoanalysis holds that the father is an important element to a child’s growth. Applied to a state as a whole it may be argued that a powerful government or leader is necessary to secure a nation’s healthy development. At least this seems to apply to the German state at the time of the Weimar Republic.
In this sense, the emergence of the Nazi ideology satisfied the need of Germany at the end of the 1920s. At first, Nazism seemed to be very powerful to be a potential qualified father of Germany. However, the Nazi ideology turned out to be rather like an unhealthy child, because its leader, Hitler, was an unhealthy man. Thomas Elsaesser explains:
Hitler projected himself not as the ideal father, but as the dutiful son of a beloved mother, and thus as a representative of the primary love-object, prior to and outside Oedipal division. The Nazi sympathizer would thus be a Narcissist who had bypassed repression and failed to acquire the ego-ideal modeled after the Father who was either absent, inaccessible or overshadowed by the mother’s authority. Fathers became pure objects of hate and aggression in a psychic world dominated by masochistic and sadistic impulses.
When the NSDAP won the elections, Germany was still suffering from the aftermath of World War I. Hitler’s renewed armament, however, spurred up the economy which reversed the trend of rising levels of unemployment and inflation. As a consequence, the standard of living increased quickly. This is also reflected in the Tin Drum in that Oskar’s family and their neighbors can finally have a party with excess of food and drinks.
According to Freud’s theory, the most important crisis for a person is to identify himself when the status changes. If without proper direction, the individual may become a person with masochistic and sadistic impulses. In my opinion, this theory can also be applied to a country. In the absence of a strong father-like leader, Germany became stronger, but it also became more aggressive. The German citizens were like children who grew up, but without their fathers’ supervision – and Hitler was one of them. These “children” hence played all kinds of violent games - attacking other countries, persecuting and torturing minorities and other ethnic groupings and so on. Against this theoretical background, the Nazi era can be called the era of the fatherless.
Taking Oskar and his family as exemplary cases of the Nazi era, the film shows how Oskar becomes a voluntary soldier to join the “war games”. Oskar’s nominal father, Matzerath, attends Nazi meetings and wins back Agnes love and respect. Indeed, Agnes who had extramarital relationships before gets close to her husband again once he joins the Nazis.
By the analysis to the Tin Drum, we can draw a concussion that to describe abnormal persons in abnormal society is the main topic of the film. The director made full use of all the film techniques and non-film techniques to show the characters of the persons, to show the situation of the Danzig, and to show the background of the society. It is a fatherless family, fatherless city and fatherless society. Just because of the fatherlessness, Oskar and his family, his city and his society were drawn in a disordered era. Because of lack of the supervision from the father, Oskar, Danzig and the society couldn’t grow up healthily. So it was natural for Oskar and his family and his society to join the aggressive war.
It should be pointed that it is very difficult for anyone to rethink one’s dark history. The film Tin Drum based on Günter Grass’ novel did that with great bravery. It offers psychological reasons for the war by describing Oskar and his family as exemplary cases of individuals, families, cities and societies which grew up in the absence of an authoritative father. It was therefore inevitable that not only some individuals, but the whole German society grew up like unsupervised children which could try and test anything which came to their mind. This is a lesson Tin Drum gives to audiences. Basing this point, it is not surprising that the film was award by the Cannes Film Festival, and, afterwards, in Hollywood the Award of Foreign Motion Picture.
ELSAESSER, Thomas. New Germany Cinema. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989.
HUA, Pan. The Analysis and Explain of the Classic Film of the World, Chinese Broadcast TV Publish House, 1999,
DI, Wang. To Film Holy Palace, Chinese Film Publish House, 1993.
XUEJUN GUO works in the School of Journalism and Communication,
Hebei Normal University, China