Seventy Years of Cannes: The Tin Drum in 1979

On Film / Short Takes — May 24, 2017

For my top-prize pick from the 1970s, I’ve chosen a film that enjoyed great commercial success while also stirring up international controversy. Though it was one of the highest-grossing German films of the decade, Volker Schlöndorff’s adaptation of Günter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum was the subject of scandal when it reached the U.S., becoming embroiled in a high-profile court case in Oklahoma, where it was temporarily banned for breaking obscenity laws and containing “child pornography.” Set in 1930s Danzig, the film follows a precocious young boy named Oskar Matzerath, who decides at the age of three to stop growing older as a stand against the rise of Nazism. He spends his time incessantly banging a tin drum that was given to him as a birthday present and unleashing his glass-shattering scream in protest.

Due to the difficulty of translating Grass’s complex novel to the screen, Schlöndorff had previously turned down numerous requests to make the film, as had Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda. Once he finally agreed, Schlöndorff employed Jean-Claude Carrière, an influential screenwriter who had already made an indelible mark on world cinema with his collaborations with Luis Buñuel. David Bennent, an eleven-year-old with a medical condition that stunted his growth and made him appear much younger, was cast in the lead role, while his father, Heinz Bennent, was cast as a grocer. The film went on to win the Oscar for best foreign-language film in 1980, and Schlöndorff used his speech as an opportunity to pay tribute to past German emigrants and exiles Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, G. W. Pabst, F. W. Murnau, and Ernst Lubitsch.

The year the film won at Cannes, 1979, marked the festival’s thirty-second edition, and the jury was led by French novelist and screenwriter Françoise Sagan (Bonjour Tristesse). Italian neorealist screenwriter Sergio Amidei, Spanish director Luis García Berlanga, American director Jules Dassin, and British actress Susannah York were also jury members. The strong competition lineup included films by Andrzej Wajda, Dino Risi, Jacques Doillon, Téchiné, Miklós Jancsó, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Gillian Armstrong, Werner Herzog, Martin Ritt (whose Norma Rae won Sally Field a best actress award), and Terrence Malick (whose Days of Heaven picked up best director).

Several other stellar works could be found in other sections of the festival: the out-of-competition selections included Miloš Forman’s festival opener Hair, Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Federico Fellini’s Orchestra Rehearsal, John Huston’s Wise Blood, and the closing-night selection, Claude Lelouch’s À nous deux; while the Un Certain Regard section showcased Fassbinder’s The Third Generation and Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s From the Clouds to the Resistance. When it came time to decide on the prize winners, the choice of Apocalypse Now as a second Palme d’Or honoree alongside The Tin Drum raised Sagan’s ire. She despised the Coppola film, which had been entered into competition despite being a “work in progress,” and its top-prize victory was rumored to have been at the insistence of festival president Robert Favre le Bret.