Families, Nuns and Nazis

“The East Coast, intellectual papers and magazines destroyed us, but the local papers and trades gave us great reviews.”
Robert Wise, director, The Sounds of Music

It premiered 50 years ago, on March 2, 1965. The Sound of Music seemed then, as it does now, a touch too treacle-covered, sugared by rushes of sentimentality and obscene hope. Maria, the restless nun, driving her nun superiors up the wall; Maria, sent to work as a governess for the Austrian naval captain encumbered by seven children. That did not stop Lady Gaga from donning something less than the usual dress spectacular, and singing a commemorative medley at the Oscars.

Digging reviewers have been foraging for the authentic Maria, as if that matters much in the scheme of things. Like a series of whispers, the original film derived from a Broadway adaptation with its Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein score which was, in turn, an adaptation of a “quaintly old-fashioned book” as Bosley Crowther described it, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Time Magazine decided to quote itself in its search for the “real” Maria. “As a novice in a Salzburg convent, Maria Augusta began to get ‘bad headaches’, she says, and her superiors decided to give her a vacation helping care for the seven children of the widowed Baron Georg von Trapp. Maria August married the baron, bore him three children.’

There are the torturous efforts to read into the continuing relevance of the film adaptation. “Maria, a flibbertigibbet, a will-o’-the-wisp, a clown,” argues Sophie Gilbert (The Atlantic, Mar 2), “is in fact an agent of quirky change similar to Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Belle in Beauty, Sam in Garden State, and (perhaps less whimsically) Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman.” Such are the ways of this “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”, a term coined by the Onion A.V. Club and a cinematic form wholeheartedly despised by the review warriors at Jezebel.

Time travel can be useful in the critic’s circle, and so, journeying back to when the film was premiered, one finds bouts of nausea and loathing, with predictions gleeful of imminent doom. Pauline Kael was hardnosed and uncompromising. The Sound of Music was “the sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat.” The movie had, within it, more than just a slant of repressiveness “on artistic freedom in movies”.

This was not surprising – Kael had waxed lyrical about the doomed fleshiness and colours, the “blood, corpse pink” of The Last Tango in Paris, which, she sensed, might “turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made”. It got into her system, and never left. The Sound of Music was, by comparison, and unwanted tenant.

Crowther of The New York Times (Mar 3, 1965) was equally bruising about a film “always in peril of collapsing under its weight of romantic nonsense and sentiment”, though admitted to the way director Robert Wise “used his cameras” in setting “a magnificently graphic scene in and around the actual city of Salzburg”. Wise’s business sense was more than well-tuned.

A general consensus existed about the sheer ludicrousness of the plot. Underlying the film is the admission to some ghastly relativism, or at the very least the reduction of history to saccharine reflection in a scenic Salzburg scape. As noted by Kevin Fallon in The Daily Beast, scenes are accorded similar significance – “a father is upset that his children’s clothes are made out of curtains. In the other, the Nazis are invading Austria. They are given the same weight.”

The point on the Nazis – with its southern Germanic pedigree – is almost always overlooked. In the musical, poor, virtuous Austrians are rumbled by the arrival of Hitler’s muscular jackboots, ignoring the Führer’s own ties with the idealised setting, and local agitation. More to the point, it ignores conciliatory attitudes to the Anschluss – the fateful pact which dissolved Austrian sovereignty into a union with the Third Reich in 1938. There were certainly more sides to Austria than the one represented by a desperate Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg, let alone the family von Trapp.

While resistance to the pressing Nazi takeover was present, the existence of sympathy and collusion is brushed across with bubbly defiance through song and celebration, with the song Edelweiss being sung as a form of patriotic disagreement with storm trooper bullyboys. Matters were far more serious, with the Jewish community an immediate victim of the newly annexed territory, and tens of thousands of arrests culminating in the creation of Mathausen concentration camp.

This is victimhood rendered pure through music, which has little room for such enthusiasts as former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, who busied himself on the intelligence front working with German units during World War II which were involved in the execution of Yugoslav partisans and deporting Greek Jews. Historian Robert Edwin Herzstein asserts a relevant parallel between Waldheim’s own moral world, and the irritatingly squeaky-clean rendition in The Sound of Music. “Kurt Waldheim did not, in fact, order, incite or personally commit what is commonly called a war crime. But this non-guilt must not be confused with innocence.”

George Steinitz, who worked for the film’s assistant director Ridgeway Callow, summed up its essence. “From a cinematographic standpoint it’s technically perfect and it has everything that makes a good film – landscape, a nice family and a couple of bad Nazis” (BBC News, Mar 2)

Not even Austrians are necessarily convinced the film after five decades, despite a stage version of the musical running in German in Salzburg itself. Salzburg residents tend to get besieged by a good number of the dotty The Sound of Music following, with expectations they will hear “I am Sixteen, Going on Seventeen” at the Pavilion, or Nonnberg Abbey’s effort to project the nun effect with how to “solve a problem like Maria” (BBC News, Mar 2). (The same abbey paid witness to the actual marriage between Maria Kutschera and Baron von Trapp in 1927.) Schloss Leopoldskron is given no respite, despite the von Trapp family having never resided there.

Nonsense in abundance, laced with historical dubiousness, sells. Sugar, sweetly numbing, is consumed. This was nourishing manna for Hollywood, and the transformation of the tale demonstrates both the seductiveness, and the dangers, of the dream machine which refuses to let you wake. In the end, most people simply wanted to giggle and sing – as they generally do when recounting it.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com