Those who claim it is have a bad case of tunnel vision. They're like the teenagers who rifled through Lady Chatterley's Lover for the "good" parts, but didn't have a clue about what the book was about.
The Tin Drum runs for 142 minutes. Of these, maybe 2 or 3 minutes involve sexually suggestive scenes with minors. The remainder of the film – more than 2 hours – deals with Germany before, during and after World War II. This is irrelevant to the censors, for whom even a couple of scenes of a child in a sexual situation is enough to call out the troops. And that is precisely what recently happened in Oklahoma City.
Acting on a complaint by the Oklahomans for Children and Families – self-appointed guardians of morality who are not satisfied with controlling what they view themselves, but wish to dictate what others may see as well – the police brought the film to a judge for an "opinion." Off-the record, the judge pronounced the movie "obscene."
The police then seized The Tin Drum from video stores and the homes of private citizens who had rented it, and confiscated the library's copy (which had been rented only about eight times, according to reports). Anyone found with a copy of the film in Oklahoma City now is threatened with prosecution.
Don't rush to your local video store yet. The film, adapted from the novel by Gunter Grass, is about a young boy who, at the age of three, improbably engineers a case of self-imposed arrested physical development. He simply refuses to grow. The story has been called "complex [and] allegorical."
Grass has said that it is about the effort "to escape the process of becoming an adult and the inherent responsibilities" of adulthood. According to the Chronicle of the Cinema, the movie is "a disturbing look at German history through the relentless gaze of a weird child…Oskar acts as a sort of conscience to the inhabitants of Danzig when the Nazis are in power and the war rages."
A reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor wrote that the film had "the greatest performance by a child that I have ever seen in a movie."
Notwithstanding its serious, almost grim, content, the censors are now after The Tin Drum because of the two or three minutes in which Oskar, by now apparently a teenager chronologically if not physically, has sexual intercourse. The act is more suggested than depicted, and it is anything but lewd or lascivious.
In fact, any eroticism of The Tin Drum is plainly in service of another, deeper message about war and cultural dislocation.
If "obscenity" or "child pornography" occurs whenever minors are depicted in sexual situations, as some claim, here are just some of the things that would be off limits: any accurate film version of Nabokov's classic novel Lolita; some renditions of Romeo and Juliet; probably lots of old National Geographics or other magazines with photos of tribal rituals; pictures in some medical textbooks; films or pictures describing female genital mutilation (even if made for the purpose of opposing it); graphic films about incest or sexual abuse of children (even if made for the purpose of opposing it); and so forth.
These kinds of things are not "obscene," nor should they be considered child pornography, for two reasons.
First, they all unmistakably have "redeeming social value," in First Amendment parlance. Even if "perverse" to some, these works all attempt to represent something about the human condition, or to comment on it in some serious and legitimate way. Prohibiting or chilling these expressions would raise the cultural quotient of ignorance and promote intellectual impoverishment.
Second, there is no evidence in these kinds of situations that any child has been sexually abused or exploited. Forcing or permitting a child to engage in real sexual acts is and should be prohibited, but that is not the same thing as using a willing child actor, who is properly protected from exploitation, to appear in sexually suggestive situations, where the purpose and effect is to advance artistic goals or to achieve historical or scientific accuracy, and not to titillate.
It's time for reason to return to the discussion of obscenity in art and literature. Those with incurable tunnel vision will always see only a small part of the universe of ideas. The rest of us, however, are entitled to see the big picture – if we care to look.
Joan E. Bertin is Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship.