The Tin Drum (Film)
by Volker Schlöndorff
EDITOR'S NOTE: In June of 1997, an anti-pornography group named Oklahomans for Children and Families (OCAF) claimed that the German movie "The Tin Drum" was in violation Oklahoma's obscenity laws. After a summary judgment by a Oklahoma County district judge, the police confiscated videos from local video stores and citizens who had rented or purchased the video. The police action prompted protests from the Metropolitan Library System, The Motion Picture Association of America, the Video Software Dealers Association, the Oklahoma Libraries Department and the American Civil Liberties Union. There are now three civil suits, which will go to trial in June. In response to this serious breach of intellectual freedom in the United States, we present this essay which should help illustrate the historical, ideological and artistic importance of this 1979 Academy Award winning film by Volker Schlöndorff.
The history of this century has been "written" with images. Electronic means of recording events have made the "past" immediately accessible in the present, thereby blurring the lines of real and unreal, granting a new immediacy to the past as well as a newly found power to experience it and shape it in our image. However, if we consider history to be a series of images, we break down a fundamental assumption of traditional history; we negate temporality. When we watch an old movie or a news clip on the television, there is really nothing to separate us (the viewer) from the event. Therefore, linear progression of time is no longer the mode in which history functions and it is only the images themselves that are subject to debate.
The electronic mode of representation has become so prevalent that some scholars consider our society to be post-literate, one in which the written word is passé because it is no longer the dominant mode of representation. I believe that cinema and electronic media represents a new form of literacy, where people communicate by referring to images rather than books. Images are at once evidence and discourse simultaneously, cause and effect.1
To understand how history is represented in the cinema we must also, according to Thomas Elsaesser, be "able to grasp the problem as one of 'the history of cinematic representation' and more specifically, address how the pervasiveness of visual representation has not only altered our perception of the past, but concepts such as public and private, truth and evidence."2 This question of cinematic representation and how it alters our perception of its subject matter raises a very important question: "Who manipulates these images?" The obvious filter of an author speaking to us through a written work has been replaced by the less obvious but equally present filter of the camera, director, producer, media company and so forth. History in the twentieth century is a war of images, each vying with the other to gain acceptance.
Media companies are not the only entities that create or record historical images. Regular people do this on a day to day basis, creating history without even consciously realizing it. People record their lives as an act of memory. If we want to remember a certain event, we take photos or videotape it. We have blurred the distinction between history and memory on the personal level by replacing older means of keeping records (journals, photos and letters) with newer, electronic media (video and sound recording) that not only record the event as it happened but preserve it as something we can repeatedly experience in the moment.
The same dynamic applies to national history. History has functioned since the middle of the nineteenth century as the collective memory of the nation-state and the source of legitimacy for civil government. Since history is no longer the exclusive province of the professional historian, there is no limit to the possible interpretations of a nations history/images.
Because images are simultaneously the record of an event and the meaning of an event, some societies have sought to create meaning for themselves through the manipulation of images. This is the re-creation of history by altering the images themselves or by creating new ones. This is a powerful, persuasive tool for structuring the collective memory of a nation.
This paper will examine the Nazis attempt to alter the collective memory of Germany in such a way as to accomplish their transformation of German society into a "racially pure" tribal union. We will examine how Leni Riefenstahl accomplishes this in her film The Triumph of the Will which is a film about the 1934 Nazi Party Rally in Nuremberg. We will also examine one of many attempts to re-create the Nazi legacy through the cinematic adaptation of Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum. In particular, this paper will examine how Schlöndorff (the director) re-interprets the Nazi legacy using the language of Nazism. Schlöndorff confronts the Nazi images (contained in The Triumph of the Will) with new images of similar events--thereby altering the memory of those events.
The Nazis classified themselves as a movement rather than a political party. Although they did come to power through constitutional means (although just barely constitutional) as a political party, they were not concerned with political power as an end in itself. The Nazis sought to radically recreate Germany as a racial state.
With the assumption of power in 1933, the National Socialists banned major political opponents through invocation of Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which granted the president of the Republic (Hitler) broad emergency powers in a state of emergency. The Reichstag fire was blamed on the Communists (KPD) and subsequently used as a pretext to declare a state of emergency. This state of emergency became the de facto mode of government.
To effect this transformation of historical memory/society the Nazis used film and propaganda to reach out to the German population and involve it in the day to day political life of the country as never before. Before the Nazi's assumed power in 1933, many Germans characterized themselves as apolitical, not wishing to taint themselves with "filthy politics." Thomas Mann, one of the foremost authors of the Bismarkian Reich and the Weimar Republic, gave voice to this sentiment in his Reflections of a Non-Political Man (1919).
The Nazis realized a high level of political involvement through a variety of means, the most important of which was that they made politics a big show for the populace. Politics was not just flashy speeches and marches, it was also torchlight parades and art exhibits. In short, politics became art. Through an artistic rendering of politics and the Nazi ideology, people were drawn to the spectacle of Nazism without realizing that they were involved in politics. Furthermore, the Nazis intentionally blurred the distinction between life and politics in order to actively involve the "people on the street" in the political and aesthetic transformation of the nation. The most successful instance of the phenomena described above was the film The Triumph of the Will.
Triumph of the Will is the most effective representation of the means by which the Nazis were not only able to hold onto power in Germany, but also able to involve a large majority of the population either actively or passively in the perpetration of the Final Solution. Triumph of the Will is a powerful movie which breaks down the real/aesthetic and participant/viewer barriers through its masterful use of lighting, camera angles and sound. Although the entire movie should be viewed to understand the full impact upon the viewer/participant, five scenes capture the essential techniques the movie uses to break down the barriers mentioned above. The first scene is the opening credits, which are used as an initial establishing shot and framing mechanism. The second and third scenes are Hitler's arrival in Nuremberg by plane and his trip from the airfield to his hotel. The fourth scene is Hitler's address of the Hitler Jugend. The fifth scene is the short closing sequence of the film with its dissolving, overlapping images.
From the opening scene, we can see how the movie is attempting to shape our perception of the events that we are about to see. An exceptionally long take on the title of the movie Triumph of the Will fades into a series of dates with a voice over explaining what each of them means. We start with the day of the rally and then switch to the end of World War I. Eventually we are told that this Rally is happening "16 months after the beginning of the German Renaissance."3 Reifenstahl uses these credits to place the Nazi Rally in a historical context and manipulate our perception of it and the movement it represents.
The initial credits fade to black as the film begins. We are then presented with a shot of clouds from the interior of a plane (Hitler's plane presumably). The plane wings its way towards Nuremberg, dissolving into aerial shots of the cityscape. Wagner plays in the background as we see the plane land at the cities airfield. Hitler emerges to mobs of people chanting Sieg Heil! in wave after wave of massed voices. The arrival is filmed from just in front of the crowd creating the illusion that we are in the front row, watching the arrival of Hitler.
We see Hitler get into his car and travel to his hotel in the old center of the city. En route, he waves to shouting masses. The camerawork makes it appear as if we are not only at the rally, but riding in the car with Hitler himself. There are multiple shots of the crowd (occasionally singling out the striking Aryan uebermensch) from the road, from a moving car and from an elevated point (maybe a crane shot, but more likely a shot from a nearby building.)
Hitler is shot in a close up from his left rear quarter, so we see him in three quarter profile. It seems as if we are in the car with him, especially when the camera takes a close up of the cars instrument panel over the drivers shoulder, a shot that could only be made by looking down into the cars' forward compartment. We are also in the car when a woman and her daughter run up to the car to present Hitler a bouquet of flowers, which he cheerfully (but seriously enough for the occasion) accepts. The camera then cuts back to the three quarter shot of Hitler as he drives away. These types of shots continue until Hitler reaches his hotel.
The fourth scene is one of the most powerful of the film. With massed formations of SA on either side, Heinrich Himmler and the senior leadership of the SS march up the center aisle and stand for Hitler's speech. The marching is choreographed and creates the impression that the SS and the SA are monolithic, highly organized units of the National Socialist party. The formations and marching are captured using a traveling shot. A camera was affixed to one of the flag poles behind the rostrum and raised and lowered using a mechanized pulley.4 At one point in this scene, the camera is conspicuously visible, which indicates that Riefenstahl meant to show that this was being recorded, lending importance and weight to the event as well as making a commentary on the impartiality of the camera.
This sequence was meant to dispel speculation about the respective roles the SA and SS organizations would play in the future. This rally and combined formation occurs shortly after the famed Night of the Long Knives, in which the SS murdered the senior leadership of the SA in a power struggle over who was to form the military wing of the party.5 In this scene we can see the party deliberately attempting to alter the public's memory of the purge. Instead of seeing it as a clash of organizations and party strife, the film shows us that it was at worst a necessary evil, but that the differences have been resolved by Hitler and the party leadership.
The final scene is the short closing sequence of the film. After a number of speeches by various party officials and the customary chanting of Sieg Heil!, the camera dissolves to a swastika that fills the entire screen. This shot dissolves to a column of marching soldiers who march in an arc towards the camera. The soldiers are filmed from below in order to make them more imposing. The lighting is very dark, creating a chiaroscuro effect, heightening both the anonymity and the power of this moving column. In turn this column of soldiers dissolves to a shot of clouds (similar to those shot from Hitler's plane). At this point all three images overlap, the swastika, the soldiers and the clouds. Wagner plays in the background and the image fades to black.
Triumph of the Will effectively portrays the power and appeal of the Nazi spectacle. It represents "reality staged for the purpose of spectacle."6 I don't wish to overly simplify the complex cultural phenomena represented by the Nazi movement. However, it is important to understand that aesthetic presentation played a critical role in the Nazi propaganda machine.
The Nazi regime was destroyed in 1945 after a six year war and the perpetration of the Final Solution. The Final Solution represents a break with the past as it is an utterly incomprehensible event. It cannot be rationalized. It cannot be forgotten for two reasons. It must not be forgotten because it was the product of the Nazi regime and it was this regime that made such a massive crime possible. The second reason it cannot be forgotten is because we have records of the massacre. We have the time tables of the trains going to Auschwitz and the physical remain of the camps (although the Germans attempted to destroy them before the camps could be captured by the Allies)--but probably the most powerful evidence we have is the visual record of the camps created by both the Nazis and the Allies.
Nazism's' legacy is the visual record it left behind. Anton Kaes writes:
Nazi-produced images, because they are recorded on celluloid, will remain with us forever.... All these images, which have been replayed again and again, do not age nor can they be erased and forgotten, they are part of public history... these filmic images are everywhere, impossible to topple and destroy. It is as if the Germans had cut their eyelids off: they are condemned forever to stare at the images of their past.
It is precisely the durability of these images that demands that they must be confronted. Although the National Socialist party is now a historical phenomena that will not be repeated in the same form, its aesthetic appeal is as powerful as ever.
The necessity of confronting the Nazi past is paramount for Germany. The Holocaust and the end of World War Two represents a "ground zero" for Germany, but not in the same way that Meinecke meant it. There was never a clean slate to write upon, simply because nearly everyone in Germany had participated in Nazism, even if they did nothing but work at their everyday job and live their everyday life.7
The ground zero for Germany was the abhorrence of humanity at what Germany had been responsible for. This is not to say that anti-Semitism did not exist elsewhere in the world or that other mass slaughters (such as the Stalinist purges of the 1930') had not occurred. What made the Holocaust, Germany and the Germans so unique was the entire countrys' complicity in the crime. So, in order to be able to relate to other nations in a normal fashion, the entire German people would have to make so sort of public penance to show that they understood the nature of the great evil they had helped perpetrate. Germany was "...alone as no other people had ever been alone on this earth, and branded as no other people was ever branded before." Extirpation of the collective guilt could possibly take hundreds of years.8
However, this repentance could not only be acted out. It had to be mentally recognized as well. In order to come to terms with the Nazi legacy, the Germans had no choice but to confront the images the Nazis created. By recognizing the images of themselves in the Nazi record, the Germans could finally overcome the appeal of Nazism and realize why it had been able to manipulate them so effectively.
Although de-Nazification programs were all carried out by the occupying Allied powers after the war had ended, not everyone could be criminally charged or forced to confront their own culpability. The Allied de-Nazification programs ended and the demands of the rapidly warming Cold War pushed the guilt question to the background as Germany became the cornerstone of a Western alliance against Communism and the Soviet Union.9
It was not until the 1970's that a concerted effort was made to confront the Nazi past. This attempt was made by a number of directors who comprised the second wave of the New German Cinema. The New German Cinema was a loosely comprised association of film directors who shared similar opinions about the state of cinema in Germany.
The first wave of the New German Cinema began in 1962 when 26 young filmmakers issued a declaration at the 8th West German Short Film Festival. This declaration criticized the current state of German cinema and called for German film to "speak a new cinematic language."10 It also declared that "Papa's cinema is dead," referring to the German film industry of the 1940's and 1950's. The New German Cinema reacted against the conformity, the self-satisfaction and the materialism of West German society. However, it was not a commercially successful cinema and relied on government subsidies to keep going. It did not enjoy critical acclaim in the mainstream press, especially not in America, where it was heavily criticized.
The second wave of the New German Cinema occurred in the early 1970's and included such names as Wim Wenders, Edgar Reitz, Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff to name only a few. Unlike their ideological predecessors, these filmmakers directly confronted the source of West Germany's societal and moral malaise--the Nazi legacy. They did this through reinterpreting Nazism in its own language, reshaping the Nazi images in a new light. This reclamation of historical memory is crucial to the "mourning work," or the atonement for the Holocaust advocated by Karl Jaspers and Erich Wiechert thirty years earlier.11
The most commercially successful attempt to come to terms with the legacy of the Third Reich was the filmic adaptation of Gunther Grass's book The Tin Drum. The Tin Drum enjoyed tremendous European and American success when it was released in the late 1950's. The novel itself uses grotesque imagery to depict the state of Europe before and during the Third Reich. The Tin Drum is thematically very similar to Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, but The Tin Drum mocks the nineteenth century bildungsroman format by choosing a drum playing, infantile dwarf as its protagonist.
A number of filmmakers approached Grass about making his book into a film (including Wajda), but he did not accept any offers until approached by Volker Schlöndorff and Frank Seitz (the producer). Schlöndorff had made his career adapting works of literature to the screen, including works by Boell and Musil. Schlöndorff consciously makes films about German history by way of literature.12 Furthermore, Schlöndorff was different from most of the German film community because he had lived and trained in France from the age of fifteen.13 During his time in France, he had tried to be as non-German as possible, but he was constantly made aware of his "German-ness" by "being addressed again and again with 'you, as a German'..."14 Although striving for universal themes in his movies, Schlöndorff consciously makes "consciously German films."
Schlöndorff was admirably equipped to make a movie out of The Tin Drum. He worked extensively with Grass on the film adaptation. In adaptation, the film was radically altered in form, but the content remained the same. However, some prominent reviewers insisted on judging the movie by the book and consequently missed the point.15 For the most part, the film was well received, winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes (along with Apocalypse Now) and enjoying great box office success in Europe.16
The basic storyline of The Tin Drum is the biography of Oskar Matzerath. Oskar is born fully in control of his mental faculties and is painfully aware that life is not for him from the moment of his birth. However, there is nothing he can do about it. At his birth, his mother promises him a drum when he turns three. On the night of his third birthday, Oskar throws himself down the cellar stairs. He does this so that he may have an excuse to stop growing.
The movie then follows Oskar from the late 1920's to the end of the Second World War. We see the Nazis come to power, the arrival of the radio, the conquest of Poland first by the Germans and then by the Russians. Oskar takes us with him on his visit to the Atlantic Wall with a group of performing dwarves lead by the prophetic Bebra. Finally we see the German population of Danzig (and symbolically the rest of Eastern Europe) head West by train, finally fulfilling the Nazi rallying cry of "Home to the Reich!"
This film is similar in style and treatment of its subject matter to Bertolucci's 1900. Schlöndorff uses "Bruegel-like" images to convey both the richness and the depressing banality of burger life. These images are also meant to "make the monstrous and irrational aspects of reality seem commonplace and not exotic."17 Throughout the film the imagery hearkens back to the German classicist tradition of Bruegel and Goethe rather than the mass produced spectacle of the Nazis. Schlöndorff uses a language of symbols to express the horror of the times. The Tin Drum chronicles the end of a way of life.
The Tin Drum functions as an effective re-creation of the Nazi past because it involves the viewer directly in the action. This involvement is different from the "you are there" quality particular to The Triumph of the Will. Through different camera angles and lighting techniques, Schlöndorff make us see things as the characters see them, making us, for brief moments, the characters on the screen. This differs from Riefenstahls' approach because we are given a specific point of view from which to see things. We are either Oskar, or Herr Matzerath or Hitler; we are never the faceless participant on The Triumph of the Will. Schlöndorff's techniques makes us realize that we have a little of each of the characters in us: we are all the infantile Oskar, the well meaning and barbaric fool Matzerath, the dandy Jan Bronski and so forth.
There are five scenes that involve us in this manner. The first scene is Oskar's birth. The second scene is the night of his third birthday. The third scene is the battle of the Polish Post Office. There is one scene I would like to address separately, because it draws its' imagery directly from The Triumph of the Will. This scene is the rally scene.
Oskar's birth scene begins with a close up of his mother struggling to give birth. We are then drawn by the camera into her womb where we see Oskar wide eyed and apparently unwilling to come out. When Oskar is born, the scene is shot from his view point, hanging upside down and then suddenly upright. The harsh lighting and constant camera motion makes the act of birth seem horrible. Matzerath (his father) thunders that he will take over the shop when he is old enough. This seems like a fate worse than death until his mother promises him a drum in his third birthday. This brings him solace, but he says that he can hardly wait until the appointed day.
The next scene to be examined is Oskar's third birthday party. Oskar drifts along the edges of the party and his grandmother seems to be the only on paying any attention to him. The other adults look grotesque. Jan Bronksi is involved in heavy petting with Oskar's mother Agnes as the two of them sing a duet on the piano.18 The other adults are drunkenly toasting the stable mark. Their features look like something out of a Bosch painting. At this point, Oskar tells us in his voice over, he decided to stop growing. Judging by his experience of the adult world that is portrayed on the screen it is difficult to fault him for his decision.
The battle of the Polish Post Office is rife with historical imagery. The repeated shots of the Polish eagle, the very importance of a Polish Post Office19 and finally the inclusion of a German Army cameraman at the scene all address historicity of the events portrayed in this scene. This scene is a direct challenge to the official German images of this event. Not only is the majority of the action filmed from within the Post Office, but it presents an alternate version of the ending of the siege. There are no cameras present when German soldiers shoot surrendering Poles, but there is a camera conspicuously present during their official capture. Oskar tells us that the footage taken was shown in newsreels all over Germany. This closing comment links us directly to the image legacy of the Third Reich.
The most direct reference to the memory of the Nazi era is made in the "Rally scene". There are two sequences leading up to this scene that I would like to examine in detail. The first sequence is a scene with Matzerath, Jan, Agnes and Oskar. Jan comes to the door of the Matzerath apartment carrying a drum for Oskar. As he enters he gives the drum to Oskar and is then confronted with Matzerath running around the apartment getting ready for the rally at the fairgrounds. He is complaining that he needs boots, but Agnes reminds him that they cost too much. Jan asks Matzerath if he is going to the demonstration. Matzerath replies yes, that it's going to be a "big show." He leaves after instructing Jan and Agnes to stir the stew from time to time and asking how he looks. Throughout the whole film, we never see what Matzerath does while he is in uniform. However, judging from what we know of the SA it probably wasn't something that fit with his bucolic cook personality.
The next sequence leading directly up to the rally is a scene with Oskar. He goes into the sitting room and tunes the radio into the simulcast of the rally. The dial of the radio then dissolves into the interior of Gauleiter Loebsack's mouth as he spouts oratory from the rostrum. The camera slowly pulls back, revealing the speaker, then the entire speaking platform. This scene is shot in washed out colors. Its' almost black and white but there is a hint of color in the images. It seems that this is done to draw our attention to the fact that this is directly related to The Triumph of the Will.
As Loebsack makes his speech, the camera cuts to the fence behind the rostrum where we see Oskar sneaking in through a crack. He runs to the back of the rostrum and we see all the assorted piles of refuse behind the grand facade, one of which is being actively produced by a small child.
Oskar climbs to the front section of the rostrum along side the drum section of the Hitler Youth marching band. We see Oskar looking out through a knothole in the base of the speakers platform as the camera slowly backs away from Oskar, drawing our view out from the rostrum as it did when we first saw Loebsack.
The camera then cuts to the audience as Loebsack introduces the speaker and begins the Sieg Heil! chant. Loebsack is obviously taking great pleasure in his role as the local party leader. The speaker pulls up in a car accompanied by two large brown shirted men. As he and his escort begin to make their way to the platform, a small girl and boy run out of the crowd and present a bouquet of flowers to him. He scratches both of them under the chin and hands the flowers to his aide, who then disdainfully throws them behind his back into the car. As he continues to walk towards the podium, Oskar begins to play his drum.
He insistently drums until one of the drummers in the marching band begins to follow his lead. The supposed speaker skips his feet to keep the rhythm of the march but the march has been corrupted and he can no longer keep in time with the music. This begins a whole process of unraveling as various members of the band begin to break into impromptu solos. The audience is infected too, swaying their outstretched arms to the rhythm of the waltz. Various members pair off with each other and soon the entire audience begins to dance, engulfing the marching officers in their twirling mass. This scene is shot from above and is visually reminiscent of shots of marching columns in The Triumph of the Will.
The rally is broken up by a sudden downpour. We can see Gouleiter Loebsack's hand extended in a salute. He turns it up to catch the rain on his palm, then resolutely sticks his arm out again. In the meantime, the speaker, the rally attendees and Oskar all run off the fairgrounds for cover. The camera cuts back to Loebsack ranting in the middle of the parade ground, unwilling to accept that the rain has spoiled his rally.
Schlöndorff deliberately recreates visually similar images to those in The Triumph of the Will to make the formerly spectacular (the 1934 Party rally and the Nazi period) seem everyday, namely in a political demonstration that is thrown off by a drumbeat and dispersed by a downpour. While Riefenstahl's images were choreographed to the soundtrack of the movie, Schlöndorff revels in the disorder produced by a lone drummer and foul weather. This disorder also makes the grand spectacle of 1934 seem to be just that--a photo-op, rather than real life.20
The Tin Drum, like 1900, is a direct challenge to the accepted history of the Nazi period, 'It was always somebody else who had been the evil one...all you had to know was that a nasty little Santa Claus, Hitler, had seduced everyone into doing horrible things."21 By restructuring Nazi images and making us see the past in a less triumphant, less involved way, Schlöndorff restructures public memory to continue the mourning work that was a moral imperative of postwar Germany. As Oskar explicitly states during Kristallnacht, as the synagogue burns in the background, "We all thought Hitler was Santa Claus, but he turned out to be the gas man".
Kracauer, Siegfried. quoted by Thomas Elsaesser. "Cinema, The Irresponsible Signifier," New German Critique 40 (Winter 1987): 65-90
Elsaesser, Thomas. "New German Cinemas Historical Imaginary". Framing the Past: The Historiography of German Cinema and Television. Carbondale: University of Illinois Press, 1992. 291-292.
Riefenstahl, Leni. Triumph of the Will.
The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl
People suspected that this was on Hitler's orders, but no one could ever find out if Hitler ever gave the direct order for the purge.
Schulte-Sasse, Linda. "Leni Riefenstahl's Feature Films," Framing the Past: The Historiography of German Cinema and Television." Carbondale: University of Illinois Press, 1992. 162
Pinson, Koeppel S. Modern Germany: Its History and Civilization. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company. 1966. 551
Wiechert, Erich. quoted in Pinson, Koeppel S. Modern Germany: Its History and Civilization. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company. 1966. 549
Pinson, Koeppel S. Modern Germany...552
Pflaum, Hans Guenther and Prinzler, Hans Helmut. Cinema in the Federal Republic of Germany: The New German Film, Origins and Present Situation, A Handbook. Bonn: Inter Nationes. 1983. 5
Franklin, James. New German Cinema: From Oberhausen to Hamburg. Boston: Teayne Publishers. 1983. 94
Franklin, James. New German Cinema: From Oberhausen to Hamburg. Boston: Teayne Publishers. 1983. 93
Canby, Vincent. "Film: 'The Tin Drum,' From Grass's Epic Tale". The New York Times. Friday, April 11 (1980) C6
[John Doe]. "Mosaic of National Successes Readying Tin Drum for the USA" Variety ?? 24
Hughes, John. "The Tin Drum: Volker Schloendorff's 'Dream of Childhood'." Film Quarterly. V34 (Spring 1981):3:2
I believe that this duet is a subtle mockery of Matzerath as Jan and Agnes have been sleeping together for a number of years--the duet includes a repeated reference to a "Dumbkopf," literally "Dumbhead."
The importance of the Post Office has to do with ownership of the city. Instead of German place names used in the addresses, the Polish Post Office uses the Polish place names, thereby claiming jurisdiction.
Elsaesser, Thomas. "Filming Fascism". Sight & Sound. v. 2 (September 1992). 20