March 2 marked the 50th anniversary of the release of the Sound of Music film, and everyone has the warm fuzzies. The musical has become synonymous with kitsch, family fun, raindrops on roses, etc. Even fetuses in the womb feel an innate sense of nostalgia about the musical classic.
To celebrate, Lady Gaga proved that she hasn’t yet destroyed her vocal cords with a Sound of Music medley at the Oscars, followed by a speech by the Queen herself, Julie Andrews. And of course winter 2013 brought us the early Christmas gift of the live TV performance of the musical, featuring Carrie Underwood with all the personality of fresh soy milk and a bevy of Broadway actors too talented to be there.
Carrie Underwood can do whatever she likes. The Sound of Music’s real issue is most pronounced in its film incarnation: its ludicrous narrative of Austria and World War II.
No one is asking for Shoah with music, of course, but the film runs so far in the other direction that the realest danger of the Nazis seems to be in making the Austrian Von Trapp children sing the worst musical arrangement in the film. Yes, Germany is going to draft the Captain into the Navy, but the ideological threat is awkwardly vague—it’s the notion that Germany is somehow encroaching on the nobility of Austria. Anyone with a basic history of World War II can tell you that Austria wasn’t dragged into the Nazi empire kicking and screaming. Yes, the real Von Trapp family fled the country, but they were very much the exception that proves the rule.
Depicting Austrian nationalism as Nazi resistance is like insisting that you don’t watch television because you stream programs on your computer. In fact, ubiquitous slow jam “Edelweiss” is a lot like Cabaret’s subversively beautiful Fascist anthem, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” Austria is “clean” and “white?” How were the Germans trying to portray themselves, then? In the film, the Von Trapps sing about the perfect little flower, and as the crowd joins in, the Nazis become visibly uncomfortable. They have been subverted by the power of song! They must allow the crowd to indulge in nationalism! The Nazis hate Austrian nationalism, and have been thwarted for the day!
Much of the original 1959 musical’s creative team was Jewish, and in fact, the original Captain Von Trapp was none other than Jewish acting legend Theodore Bikel. This is less problematic, since the stage musical did include attempts to access more serious themes, which the movie cut (though to be fair, it’s long enough as it is). Look at the Baroness and “Uncle” Max’s number “No Way to Stop It,” which asserts that self-preservation comes before any sort of ideals. Look at Max’s insistence that he’s “lovable,” when he is, as much as a he’s a smarmy opportunist.
The stage libretto has enough about Austria succumbing to the Nazis to tease out meaning—in fact, it may be the only thing the 2013 version did better than the film. The 1965 movie instead dispenses with such nuance so we can see more of Christopher Plummer striding around in his leather boots (which once again, have a very Fascist imagery, but he’s technically anti-Nazi so it’s alright that he’s so sexy).
Pop-philosopher Slavoj Žižek has noted in his usual offbeat logic that through The Sound of Music we actually live our “secret Fascist dreams.” He explains that in the film, Austria is the pastoral paradise, while the Nazis are the suave, urban invaders (as in, the Nazi perception of Jews). It may seem a bit farfetched, but when your Nazis say nary an anti-Semitic word, why are they so evil?
They’re going to stop Maria from spinning on those hilltops. And given how undeniably wonderful that opening scene is, that, of all things, becomes their unforgivable sin.