In The Tin Drum, young Oskar is born into a family living in disputed territory, torn between Poland and Germany, as are his family’s bloodlines and allegiances.  The life of Oskar’s mother Agnes embodies this tension in her personal conduct: she marries Alfred Matzerath, but continues to have a sexual relationship with her cousin Jan Bronski, a Polish Post Office worker.  Because the latter has pale blue eyes, and so does Oskar, in those days before DNA testing, Agnes has a not-unreasonable belief that Jan is his biological father, though the world regards Alfred as Oskar’s “social” father. The two men are friends, and either accept the arrangement, or turn a blind eye to it, in the spirit of pragmatism.  However, at some point it troubles Agnes enough to motivate her to go to confession.  She brings Oskar, who brings his tin drum, which he offers to the statue of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child, whose hands are amazingly shaped in such a way as to hold the drumsticks when Oskar puts them in his hands.


However, when the statue fails to play the drum put before it, Oskar loudly questions the power of He Whom It Represents.  Though Oskar is already 14, he apparently fails to comprehend that even though much veneration is shown to statues in the Catholic context, to the properly catechized and the mentally mature, a statue is still merely a statue.


Oskar ends up making such a disturbance with his drum that he interrupts his mother’s confession (the priest is not heard to pronounce the formula of absolution) and both parties feel compelled to unexpectedly leave the confessional to intervene. (The priest wears a biretta in a situation where he is about to give absolution in confession, according to the rubrics of the time.)

Did his mother never take him to church and teach him how to behave?

Did his mother never take him to church and teach him how to behave?

The cleric unhelpfully suggests prayer when Agnes asks him what to do about Oskar.  Later, her grandmother unhelpfully hints that she is a nymphomaniac when Agnes, in spite of what was hopefully an otherwise good confession with a sincere resolution for amendment nevertheless later becomes pregnant.  (The way Agnes had described her conduct made the affair with Jan seem like a compulsion.) Agnes says that she simply will not have that particular baby.

This picture of Mary Magdalen which hangs over her bed may have inspired her to pray to be capable of eating the eels which had earlier nauseated her. Could her prayers to the saint have also arranged for her unexplained death and that of her unborn child?

This picture of Mary Magdalen which hangs over her bed may have inspired her to pray to be capable of eating the eels which had earlier nauseated her. Could her prayers to the saint have also arranged for her unexplained death and that of her unborn child?

She binges on fish before and and immediately after that discussion, and dies, either of something she ate, or a do-it-yourself attempt to terminate the pregnancy (the movie is spectacularly unclear on this point). However, her eating of the eels which had previously nauseated her may be an extreme, self-imposed mortification of the flesh as penance.

In any case, the cleric to whom she had confessed considered her sufficiently forgiven and/or her situation to have sufficient mitigating circumstances for her to get a burial plot in consecrated ground, and he presides at her funeral in full funereal regalia. Incidentally, on that occasion, he sports a biretta with a purplish pompom, implying that he ranks higher than a common priest (they wear black birettas with black pompoms), meaning that he is a bishop or a monsignor.


While it is perhaps rare for someone of such rank to be so “hands-on” as to make himself available in the confessional, kudos to him for doing so, if that is the case.  Though Agnes may not have been living in a very Catholic way for a number of years, it was obvious that she knew, and was comfortable with, this member of the Catholic hierarchy, implying that she had been more observant if not devout at a previous time in her life.

Sigismund Markus, a Jewish toy shop owner who knew Oskar and Agnes, and had proposed to Agnes with a plan to flee to London while selling himself as newly-baptized, also attends the funeral, but is harassed and driven away from the gathering by two of the gentiles there for being a “kike” in spite of (as the church teaches) being “as baptized as they are”.

Whatever religious education Oskar might have gotten in his formative years was most likely irregular and incomplete at best. Though he does say some prayers and songs to Mary after his mother’s death, when he acquires a teenage au pair of sorts, he was not seen at any time in the movie to engage in formal religious education or to receive the sacraments. Though the movie does not say this outright, perhaps the local priests denied him the sacraments on the grounds of his physical immaturity and tin drum beating obstinacy, or perhaps his mother, though a believer albeit not the best moral example failed in any attempt she may have made, or perhaps failed to make an attempt, to give Oskar a proper religious education.

“Religion” was offered as a subject in his local school, but the movie implies that formal education for Oskar did not last long after his high-pitched vocalizations shattered the schoolmarm’s glasses and eardrums. Oskar did, however, receive some private tutoring at home, from a female friend of his mother, who attempted to teach him his ABCs, but believed he wasn’t paying attention or making progress.  He chooses to look at a book about Rasputin with fanciful and suggestive illustrations, and brings it to his tutor, who reads aloud from it.  Oskar’s mother comes in and sees this.  In the belief that Oskar is unable to understand the sexually-tinged content of the narrative, his mother joins the other woman in continuing to read from it, and indulging themselves the sensual subject matter.

TinDrumRasputin2Though Oskar seemingly wanders away, it is made clear that the matter of the book plays as a tableau in his imagination.


Oskar claims that while the adults who are supposed to be supervising him are thus occupied, he turns to more elevated reading material, such as Goethe.


Oskar claims to be “torn between Rasputin and Goethe” in heart and mind, having been exposed to both in his formative years.

After Oskar reaches mental(?) if not physical adulthood, and in any case ends up able to go about by himself, he spends some time accompanying some “little people” he met earlier in life who are now working for the Propaganda Department as wartime entertainers and touring Third Reich military emplacements.  In one such emplacement, they have a picnic on top of a concrete bunker where they see black spots moving on the beach below, and the corporal manning the bunker tells them they are nuns who go out to collect shellfish. The nuns wear black garments but distinctive large white cornettes.  (Their habits resemble those of the Daughters of Charity.) Whether the corporal is Catholic, or just a decent human being with common sense, he protests the order on the grounds that he knows the nuns and they are not doing any harm; but is ultimately forced to fire on and kill a number of the nuns, as the picnickers look on. Roswitha, the wife of Bebra but prospective lover of Oskar, makes the sign of the cross when she witnesses the massacre. A group of the nuns wielding umbrellas are seen soon after as an apparition in the sky, ascending or being assumed (like the Virgin Mary) into heaven.



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