How does the film adaptation of Volker Schlöndorff's "Die Blechtrommel" work?

Essay, 2001

15 Pages, Grade: A



2. Introduction

3. Narrative structure in the novel Die Blechtrommel

4. Framework story

5. Narrative perspective

6. Reliable or unreliable narrator?

7. First and third person narration

8. Schlöndorff’s approach in his film version

9. Necessary changes

10. What is left of the narrative structure of the novel?

11. Additional changes and criticism
d) Cinematic devices or why the film works on its own

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

2. Introduction

‘The key to understanding The Tin Drum lies in understanding the mind of its remarkable first-person narrator, Oskar Matzerath, that brilliantly conceived fictional eyewitness and personification of the Third Reich, its prehistory, and its aftermath.’[1]

This quote stresses the importance of the narrator in Günter Grass’ novel. In this essay, I should like to compare the narrative structure in the novel with the film adaptation. As my aim is to find out how the film version works, I would like to put forward the proposition that not only the understanding of the narrator’s mind is crucial for the understanding of the novel, but also the understanding of the narrative structure itself within Die Blechtrommel. Therefore, I will have a closer look at the novel first and then proceeding to the film, in order to examine the changes Volker Schlöndorff made and what effect they may have on the understanding of the film.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger, a famous German poet and critic, described Günter Grass’ novel as a

‘Brocken, an dem Rezensenten und Philologen mindestens ein Jahrzehnt lang zu würgen haben, bis es [sic] reif zur Kanonisierung oder zur Aufbewahrung im Schauhaus der Literaturgeschichte ist.’[2]

This prophecy of 1959 came true and it was not until twenty years later that Volker Schlöndorff tried the first film adaptation of this complex work of literature. Nevertheless, the novel was a tremendous success, not only in post-war Germany. In the following paragraph, I will start with an explanation of the elements, which make the novel’s narrative structure so complicated and multilayered.

3. Narrative structure in the novel Die Blechtrommel

4. Framework story

First of all, there is the framework story of Oskar Matzerath being an inmate of a mental asylum and writing down the story of his life in retrospect, which also covers important parts of German history. Already in the famous first sentence, the reader is confronted with this truth and it is repeated often enough to stay in the reader’s mind. A typical beginning of a chapter for example is ‘Heute, im Bett meiner Heil-und Pflegeanstalt, vermisse ich oftmals [...].’[3] Thus, the framework story, which covers the years from 1952 to the time Oskar is being arrested in 1954 and also includes details about his male nurse Bruno Münsterberg and Oskar’s visitors, affects the reader’s assessment of every piece of information throughout the whole story. As a result, the reader is constantly forced to put the facts Oskar provides him with into question.

Out of the first two books of the novel, which are relevant for the film version, almost half of the 32 chapters are introduced by images of Oskar in the mental asylum. The actual story of his childhood is interrupted regularly and told in flashbacks. This creates in the reader a feeling of watching and keeping pace with Oskar while he is writing his lifetime story and, at the same time, it creates a greater distance to the events of the past. In addition, the narrator complains about his memory and openly admits that he needs his drum to recover the exact events:

‘Hätte ich nicht meine Trommel, der bei geschicktem [...] Gebrauch alles einfällt, [...] wäre ich ein armer Mensch ohne nachweisliche Großeltern. Jedenfalls sagt meine Trommel [...].’ (page 23)

In my opinion, the effect of this framework story is twofold. On the one hand, it strongly supports the idea of an autonomous narrator, especially through the creation of an ongoing writing process, which the reader is able to follow step by step. On the other hand, however, this support of the narrator is absolutely necessary because of the untrustworthy figure of the narrator, who is an inmate of a mental asylum and is dependent on his drum to remember the details of his story. Furthermore, he is not writing a daily diary, which would recount the immediate events of the past. When considering the time-scale, Oskar covers a large passage of time, which must have blurred some of the facts. He is constructing and reconstructing his story, to what an extent is a question, the reader has to ask himself.

5. Narrative perspective

Another remarkable feature of the novel is the unusual point-of-view of Oskar’s narration. As he had decided to stop growing at the age of three, he remains an outsider throughout the novel and, thus, is able to recall events from this childish perspective. He reports his experiences in the past out of his ‘weißlackiertes metallenes Anstaltsbett’ (page 9) and tells the reader how he saw the world as a permanent three-year-old. This eccentric point-of-view allows Oskar to perceive insights in the mechanism of the adult’s world, which normally remain secrets. A typical and striking example for this perspective is the scene where Oskar hides under the table while the adults are playing cards:

‘Ich fühlte mich wohl unter der Tischplatte, im Windschatten des herabhängenden Tischtuches.’ (page 82)

In this position, he is able to observe what his supposed father Jan is doing with his foot between the legs of his mother while they are playing skat. Through this ‘Froschperspektive’ in which we find Oskar again and again throughout the novel, he is able to reveal human affairs and the history of a whole epoch alike. Other examples for favourite hiding places are cupboards and the skirts of his grandmother. Even when he is in Paris, standing under the Eiffel Tower reminds him of his grandmother’s skirts (page 434). However, these impressions conveyed by the eyes of a self-declared ‘zurückgebliebenen Dreijährigen’ (page 165) also result in a totally unbiased description of events. It is crucial that Oskar just sees or observes what is going on around him - ‘there is no suggestion of his judging or criticising events or people.’[4] The consequence of this exceptional narrative point-of-view, however, is that is leaves the reader without orientation in the first place, but also might be able to force him into a personal judgement of events.

6. Reliable or unreliable narrator?

In a first-person novel, the reader is subjected to the narrator in any way, which is due to the fact that the narrator is his only access to the story. Traditionally, in this kind of novel the reader counts on the reliability of the narrator, as the first-person perspective seems to support authenticity in a special way. In Die Blechtrommel however, this narrator is an inmate of a mental asylum and consciously plays with the uncertainty of the reader. Right in the beginning, Oskar states that he is lying when he tells his male nurse anecdotes out of his past (page 9). Shortly after that, he makes the reader fully conscious of the process of narrating by asking himself what the best way to tell a story finally is:

‘[...] wie fange ich an? Man kann eine Geschichte in der Mitte beginnen und vorwärts wie rückwärts kühn ausschreitend Verwirrung anstiften. Man kann sich modern geben, alle Zeiten, Entfernungen wegstreichen und hinterher verkünden [...] man habe das Raum-Zeit-Problem gelöst.’ (page 12)

After Oskar discussed writing theories for novels, he decided to start ‘weit vor mir’ (page 12) and the reader is left with the question of the meaning of all this and how Oskar can possibly know all these details out of his grandmother’s life.

Even before his birth, the reader is warned by Oskar’s horoscope, given on page 54, in which he describes himself as ‘einfallsreich’, with the tendency to exaggerations and ‘verankert zwischen Wunder und Täuschung’. Moreover, throughout the novel, there are several cases Oskar corrects himself and his own writing:

‘Ich möchte jedoch bei der Wahrheit bleiben und Oskars Feder in den Rücken fallen und hier berichtigen, daß erstens Jans letztes Spiel, das er leider nicht zu Ende spielen [...]. (page 318)

In addition, the reader is confronted with contradicting statements, for example when Oskar describes how it happened that he started growing again. First, he reports that he started growing as soon as he threw the drum into the grave of Matzerath (page 533). Only five pages later, he presents the reader a different story, namely that he started growing when he was hit by a stone, thrown by his supposed son Kurt and, as a consequence, fell into the grave. Then, even on the same page, he again insists that he started growing before the stone (page 538) hit him. What is the reader to make out of these contradicting statements? However, one could also argue that these mistakes make Oskar more human - in the sense of to err is human - and thus increase his plausibility. Shortly after that, Oskar is unable to write his own story because of pain in his hands. Therefore, he retells his story about the journey in the freight car to his male nurse Bruno, but doubts in advance whether or not Bruno will be able to fulfil his task. Throughout this whole second hand report, the reader finds hints that Bruno himself doubts what Oskar is telling him. He uses a very vague language and interrupts himself quite often with comments such as ‘Mein Patient behauptet [...]’ (page 556) or ‘Selbst seine Ohren, [...] sollen, wie ich hier höre, [...] Wachstum bezeugt haben.’ (page 556). In this situation, the reader is left thoroughly irritated because of the vagueness and the layered narration. Every narrator turns out to be even more unreliable as the previous one.

Another example for Oskar as an unreliable narrator are the instances when he uses dubious information in his story, either from very unreliable sources or without any sources at all. For example the knowledge where to find Jan’s body, which he received from Schugger Leo (page 320). Leo is a complete madman, who nevertheless has the power to see things, which others cannot see, such as Oskar’s beginning growth, and mainly lives in the graveyard. Therefore, it is hard for the reader to regard him as a trustworthy witness. The other extreme is that Oskar states to be simply omniscient when he says ‘Fragen sie mich bitte nicht woher ich das weiß. Oskar wußte damals so ziemlich alles.’ (page 383). Both of these ways of narrating are likely to prevent any identification process between reader and narrator.

However, there are some references in the narrative style of Die Blechtrommel which could be interpreted as belonging to a reliable narrator and this ambiguous situation further adds to the complexity of the narrative structure and the confusion of the reader. First of all, many chapters in the novel start with the narrator directly addressing the reader. Thus, Oskar lets the reader take part in his story when he asks questions such as ‘Ist Ihnen das ein Begriff?’ (page 350) or he even warns them when he makes comments such as ‘Doch lassen Sie sich nicht täuschen.’ (page 380). On the other hand, exactly this explicit form of address stirs mistrust and makes the reader even more suspicious. Secondly, Oskar once uses a direct dialogue to recall parts of the story (page 436) or even the form of a printed letter, in which Hedwig Bronski is informed about the death of her husband (page 321). This could be seen as a definite proof and therefore make Oskar more trustworthy, but the reader is also right when he questions this ‘proofs’ and, again, asks how Oskar can possibly know this.


[1] Keele, Alan Frank. Understanding Günter Grass, page 11

[2] Richter, Frank. Die zerschlagene Wirklichkeit. Überlegungen zur Form der Danzig-Triologie von Günter Grass, page 7

[3] Grass, Günter. Die Blechtrommel, page 171 (all further quotes out of this text are marked with page numbers only)

[4] Thomas, Noel L. Grass. Die Blechtrommel, page 17

Excerpt out of 15 pages


How does the film adaptation of Volker Schlöndorff's "Die Blechtrommel" work?
University of London  (Faculty of German Literature)
German Narrative Fiction: Text and Film
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
454 KB
Volker, Schlöndorff, Blechtrommel, German, Narrative, Fiction, Text, Film
Quote paper
Evelyn Naudorf (Author), 2001, How does the film adaptation of Volker Schlöndorff's "Die Blechtrommel" work?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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