Oklahoma and The Tin Drum

by Jamie McCarthy

After viewing the Oklahomans for Children and Families Web page advocating censorship of The Tin Drum in Oklahoma, I was inspired to go rent the film again.

It was one of my favorite films before, and I got more out of it this third or fourth time around. I'm glad I watched it again.

Here are some of the comments from the censors at OCAF:

The Supreme Court has ruled that material judged to be child pornography is not protected by the First Amendment!

NO exemptions for child pornography regarding literary, artistic, educational, political or scientific value. (Or Academy Awards). Anyone defending the distribution of The Tin Drum, supports a video that depicts child pornography and child exploitation and this video is now considered "contraband" in Oklahoma County.

The video, The Tin Drum, was turned over to the Oklahoma City Police on Friday, June 20, 1997. It was then taken to a judge for his ruling. Judge Richard Freeman ruled on June 25, 1997 that the video, The Tin Drum, had two scenes which are child pornography as defined in Oklahoma state law.

I take this as a declaration of war. I defend the distribution of The Tin Drum, though I can't offer anything but moral support, in Oklahoma and anywhere else anyone wants to see it. For some know-nothings to tell me that I am now "supporting a video that depicts child pornography and child exploitation" is infuriating.

Exploitation of children is damn serious business and I hope anyone who actually makes kiddie porn films is strung up by their thumbs. I think of my niece and nephew and the idea of anyone doing anything like that just sickens me. Enough said about that.

But this film doesn't qualify as anything of the kind. The work -- and I speak without having read the book, and knowing full well I'm not a film critic -- is a beautiful and stinging indictment of Nazi Germany, of totalitarian mass insanity, and of adult sin and insanity in general. It depicts Hitler's rise to power as seen through the eyes of a child.

And moreover, it shows the role of any among us to speak up against tyranny, and asks us about our duty to do so in the face of oppression. The fact that this very film is being banned, and worse, banned with today's most dangerous slur of "child pornography," is ironic in the extreme.

The tim drum itself is a present given to Oskar which he will not let go; no one can take it from him. He defends himself with his shrill voice, which shatters glass, usually resulting in the shock and dumbfoundment of all around him, causing everyone to stop what they're doing, at least for the moment while they figure out what's going on.

He comes to some small notoriety through this talent, being written up in a medical journal and so on. Meanwhile, the Nazis are coming to power. When Oskar goes to a circus, he is impressed by a midget performer by the name of Herr Bebra, who makes glasses sing. Young Oskar, who is really a 12-year-old in a (supposedly) 3-year-old's body, goes to meet him after his performance. After they become acquainted:

Mr. Bebra: Are you, too, an artist?

Oskar: Not really. Although... [demonstrates by shattering some lightbulbs with his scream] ...as you see, I can lay claim to a certain artistry.

Mr. Bebra [while fellow clowns applaud]: Bravo, bravissimo! You must join us, you must!

Oskar: Do you know, Mr. Bebra... [sits, and speaks solemnly] To tell the truth, I prefer to be a member of the audience and let my little art flower in secret.

Mr. Bebra: My dear Oskar! Trust an experienced colleague. Our kind must never sit in the audience. Our kind must perform and run the show or the others will run us. The others are coming. They will occupy the fairgrounds. They will stage torchlight parades, build rostrums, fill the rostrums, and from those rostrums preach our destruction.

Oskar's parents find him and take him away, with Herr Bebra calling after him:

Auf wiedersehen! ... They are coming!

In the very next scene, Oskar's father surprises his mother with a brand-new radio, to her delight. As Oskar looks on, they remove the portrait of Beethoven from the wall, and hand it down to Oskar. As Oskar's own face is briefly reflected over Beethoven's in its glass, his parents hang in its place a portrait of the Fuehrer.

The next scene following is one of sheer horror and delight, a little absurdity in what is for the most part a serious film. I won't spoil it by saying too much, but in essence, the tin drum itself shows how one small voice can disrupt the total unity demanded by totalitarianism and how that one voice, in the right place at the right time, can affect many people.

There's another scene where, in a Catholic church, Oskar crawls up to a statue of the baby Jesus, places the tin drum around his neck, and exhorts the statue to play -- it does nothing, of course -- obvious symbolism of the Vatican's failure to stand against Naziism.

Remember, "this video is now considered 'contraband' in Oklahoma County" according to Oklahomans for Children And Families (OCAF).

The irony! A work which is largely about the desire to be heard, to tell the world something and maybe slow down collective insanity just a little bit: a work about the effort to raise one's voice is now forbidden material, removed from the shelf and replaced with a stupid, unthinking loyalty to "Children And Families." Just as Oskar's face is superimposed over Beethoven's, I hope we all see our own faces in this example.

I condemn the Nazis for banning "degenerate" art. I condemn OCAF no less strongly for their apparently-successful attempt to keep this excellent, cautionary tale out of the hands of Americans. God forbid we should actually work to keep real, living kids from being abused, neglected, and sexually tormented -- why should we go to the effort? It's much easier to attack a 17-year-old Academy Award-winning film!

I don't know if I'll be able to make a difference, but I've got my own silicon drum and I intend to bang the hell out of it. Next time someone brings up child pornography in my presence, this is the story I'm going to tell: about mass insanity, and my optimistic belief that maybe one voice can do something about it. Maybe I can make one person stop and think about what's going on. If the law calls this film kiddie porn, then the law is wrong.

Jamie McCarthy was one of the administrators of the Nizkor Holocaust site. Here is his own page.