The Tin Drum Controversy

by Daryl Lease

One night in June, three police officers knocked on Michael Camfield's front door in Oklahoma City to ask him about a movie he'd rented from Blockbuster Video.

No, he wasn't late returning it.

No, he wasn't one of those scofflaws who forgets to rewind his movie. And, no, he wasn't under investigation for hogging the popcorn bowl.

Michael Camfield had made a slightly bigger mistake. He had rented the 1979 Academy Award-winning film The Tin Drum.

A group of tinhorn moralists in his hometown had recently given it a big thumb's down, and they didn't want him or anyone else to watch it. What happened next is a bit foggy.

Camfield says the cops told him he was in possession of child pornography (that would be The Tin Drum) and could face criminal prosecution. Camfield knows a little bit about his civil liberties—he happens to be head of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union— but he says he got the distinct impression that officers one through three didn't want to hear anything about liberty, civil or otherwise. He handed over the tape.

The man responsible for the seizure of the movie—and eight other copies of it around town—is Bob Anderson, director of a group called Oklahomans for Children and Families. Bob is a man who doesn't let pesky details get in the way of a crusade. He has not seen The Tin Drum. He doesn't even know what it is about. "I don't need to know the story," he recently told National Public Radio. Anderson launched a battle against the movie after he heard the host of a religious radio show call it obscene. "He said it could be judged pornographic, and that's all I needed to hear."

Well, there is a bit more to hear.

"The Tin Drum" is set in Nazi Germany. It is the story of a little boy named Oskar who—after observing the adults around him—quite literally refuses to grow up. As the story progresses, Oskar ages on the inside but remains a child on the outside.

The film is based on the critically acclaimed novel by Gunter Grass, a German writer who is frequently mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature.

In addition to winning an Academy Award, the movie was honored at the Cannes Film Festival. Some critics say it is one of the 50 best films ever made.

I have to confess that I, like millions of others, have seen The Tin Drum.

To be honest, my taste in movies sometimes leans toward those in which the whatchamacallit—the denouement—involves a car chase and a long but tasteful exchange of gunfire. So I can't honestly say that I immediately recognized The Tin Drum as a cinematic masterpiece. My strongest memory of it is that I had a powerful urge to set down my bowl of buttered popcorn, flip off the VCR and catch a quick nap. It's long, it's in German and—tap, tap, tap—it's a bit repetitive.

Maybe that's why I couldn't immediately recall the specific 30-second scene that caused Bob Anderson to launch his crusade.

That's right. Thirty seconds.

The scene supposedly shows Oskar—who is portrayed by an 11- year-old actor—performing oral sex on a teenage girl.

"Shows" isn't exactly the right word, though.

I recently downloaded the objectionable scene from CNN's site on the Internet and watched it again. In fact, I watched it again and again and again.

The boy and the girl are in a bathhouse at the beach. In the span of about 30 seconds, the audience hears the girl let out a yell and sees her push the boy away.

There is no nudity whatsoever.

The director, Volker Schlondorff, says the scene was edited to create the impression of sexual activity, but that none actually occurred during the filming. He says the parents and all of the children's legal representatives were present during all stages of the shooting.

He is puzzled and amused by the fuss. Two decades ago, he says, the film was approved by every official censor in every repressive government that employs official censors. And now this. In the land of freedom.

Frankly, I didn't realize that what I had watched a decade ago—or that I watched more recently—was pornographic.

It looked like a movie about Nazis to me.

It took Bob, the man on the radio who gives him his orders and Oklahomans for Children and Families to point out to me what it really was about.

I suppose I should thank them for that.

But somehow I think that would be obscene.

Daryl Lease is a columnist for The Free Lance-Star newspaper in Fredericksburg, Virginia

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