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The Sound of Music

CBC Dispatches in December 2005

As a child growing up in Canada, I understood there to be two kinds of Europeans: French ones and German ones. The French ones ate croissants, the Germans ones ate rye bread. Our family had croissants as a treat on Christmas morning, and rye bread on canoe trips when nothing else was left – the squashed Dinkelmeyer loaf emerged from the bottom of the food pack, each slice looking and tasting like the well-worn sole of a running shoe.


The French, I knew to be our great forbears as Canadians. They had helped to settle the New World. The Germans, meanwhile, had ruined the Old one.  


My source here was “The Sound of Music”, the first movie I ever saw, at 7. The film adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which came out forty years ago, won 5 Oscars and was, for nearly a decade to follow, the biggest box office hit of all time.

Seen today, “The Sound of Music” proves itself to be the epitome of kitsch. But for 7-year-old me, it was, in all its Technicolour splendour, the most romantic, exciting, and frightening thing imaginable. And it also became, for lack of alternative, my authoritative source on German history.


That the story was actually set in Austria didn’t matter - the Austrians, Swiss, Germans all belonged in one non-French European pot. And it seemed that these Germanics, more than other peoples, fell into 2 distinct camps: the very good on the one hand and the very evil on the other. In the movie, it takes over two hours for the heroic Captain Trapp, his darling children and the chronically singing nun Maria to triumph over the Nazis but they ultimately do and escape to that paradise on Earth called America.

That this message seeped into me at 7 speaks for the masterfulness of “The Sound of Music” as post war propaganda. But what explains the enduring success of “The Sound of Music” and the entire industry that’s grown out of it, forty years later?


“The Sound of Music” is the longest running American musical in London theatre history. The “Sing-a-long Sound of Music” – a hybrid of pop concert, movie and karaoke – sells out in New York, Tokyo and Delhi; the one at London’s Leicester Square is cult among cross-dressers.


Three quarters of the non-European tourists in Salzburg come not for Mozart or the city’s world-class opera festival, but to retrace Maria’s footsteps, take a bus tour to the film’s locations and shop for “Sound of Music” souvenirs; dirndls, edelweiss seeds, and DVDs.


The most bizarre element of the Sound of Music phenomenon is that, until recently, virtually no Germans, Austrians or Swiss have ever heard of it. They may know John Coltrane’s rendition of “My Favourite Things”, but they don’t know that the song was originally sung by 7 Austrian children snuggled in bed with a nun, let alone that such images shape the impression that millions of people have of their countries.

But this year, things began to change. For the first time, “The Sound of Music” was staged in Austria: at the Vienna Folk Opera. Austrian impresarios have stayed away from the musical, fearing audience’s response to its implication that their parents and grandparents were in fact very receptive to Nazism and that the only way to resist was to leave. But 2005 is not only the 60th anniversary of the end of World War Two, it also marks the centenary of the birthday of Maria Augusta von Trapp – the historical character on whom the story is loosely based. It seemed like the time had come.


So, for the first time, the musical was performed in German. And the translation exposed a few intercultural glitches. For instance, the Austrians found ‘schnitzel with noodles’ – one of Maria’s ‘Favourite Things’ – a highly suspect culinary combination. Now she sings praises of ‘gulasch mit nockerln’.

When I first came to Germany, not long after having seen “The Sound of Music” for the first time, it was to Munich and the Black Forest. Many of my impressions from the film were confirmed; there were mountains and meadows, castles and cloisters. Thankfully the Nazis were gone.


Photographs from the trip reveal that I - with my blonde pigtails and blue eyes, donning various homemade frocks which may well have been recycled curtains - looked a lot like one of those von Trapplings: Liesl, Louisa, Brigitta, Marta or Gretl. I can remember friendly old ladies in markets pinching my cheeks and gurgling over me. But unlike in the movie, they didn’t speak English. I didn’t understand a word. What I heard, however, seemed consistent with my existing categories; French was the croissant of languages and German, with its “Straßenkreuzungen” and “Frühstückseier”, the stale rye bread.

It really is no wonder that “gulasch mit nockerln” wasn’t one of Maria’s favourite things.


Today as I gear up for my Christmas pilgrimage back to the new world from my chosen home on the old one, I’m confronted with the perennial crop of questions from my German friends.


“Can you go outside at this time of year?” It’s a serious question.


“Will your father hunt a bear for Christmas dinner?” It’s a half serious question.


And when I tell them I’ll be going to the United States to visit my brother who lives there, they simply balk.


“Take a gun,” they say.


David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” has had a very good run here.


For Dispatches, I’m Naomi Buck in Berlin.

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