Teutonic Reflections and Francophonic Refractions
Though the nomenclature of Roman Picaresque escaped me I have seen and been influenced by a picaresque before. The Roman Picaresque tradition is visible in Léolo. It is something, at the time, I could not name, but it is the ragamuffin, rapscallion at the center of each tale that drew me in and the confounding unreliable narrator that makes it so fascinating and easy to revisit.
This film was perhaps, with its plotless dalliances falling just short of vignettes, was one of the first I chose to theorize on. Simply state in my own mind “Oskar is Germany.” He stopped growth as the society did. It’s likely an over-reduction of the some of the complex representations of commentary in the film, but he is Germany of a certain time, of a certain generation. One that refused to grow and gave in to childish impulse and unbounded atrocity and aggression; one that told its sons “If you don’t want to grow, I’ll show you how it’s done.”
There are broad yet cunning satires of many aspects of Nazi Germany within such as the ostracism and elimination of homosexuals as detailed by the infamous Paragraph 175 (illustrated by one of the film’s suicides), the carnival act that was Nazi propaganda is here made literal and quite buffoonish for it. Yet, also, ironic as one of the dwarfs wishes Oskar “Mazel Tov” before his first time on stage (an allusion to Nazis playing loose and easy with rules of Aryanism; most notably Fritz Lang was terrified when he was told “We decide who is Aryan, Mr. Lang.”); Oskar’s affinity for breaking glass with his high-pitched scream can be seen as a parallel to Kristallnacht. Oskar’s involvement in propaganda can be seen as a parallel to Grass’ own divulged-late-in-life involvement with the Nazi party as a young man.
An involvement, by the way, that I don’t think makes Grass’ critics disingenuous. Surely, it’s not only those who never fell for the party line who can find fault with the fantasies and delusions they spread across Germany and the terror they inflicted across the globe.
The commentary on domestic activities are omnipresent and embodied in all characters both large or small. Oskar “die trommler,” borrowing one of Der Führer’s many monikers towards the end of the war is sought by the Gestapo for racial impurities – as his suspected father father (Cousin Jan) is Polish and not Kashubian – a self-professed borderland.
There is a frame created with the rise and fall of the Beethoven portrait. Hitler replaces him on the wall, when the war comes to an end so does Hitler’s exalted status. Beethoven returns to his rightful and immortal place “Beethoven there was a genius.”
The very patriarch of the family who utters that line dies choking on a swastika – emblazoned pin that he is attempting to hide as the Allies descend on Berlin. Echoing film scholar Timothy Corrigan’s observation, Oskar and his younger brother Kurt end up fatherless reflecting the Fatherless Generation moniker post-war German wore whether they liked it or not.
Oskar knowing he is at a crossroads decides as a twenty-one-year-old orphan to bury his drum so that he may grow. As he buries that drum, Kurt (the younger generation) hits him with a rock. In essence Oskar has to face a sort of death before he is allowed to grown. It is commented upon by grandmother that he “Fell down stairs and stopped growing. Now he fell into a grave and wants to grow again.”
Perhaps the most poignant character as commentary is Fajngold. He’s a concentration camp survivor who comes to run the Matzerath grocery store. He still has delusions that his family surrounds him, in a way it’s a variation of a fatherless generation, but this time it’s a vanished generation that will never grace German soil in a significant way again.