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Monday Postcard #142 – Austrians and The Sound of Music

Monday Postcard #142 – Austrians and The Sound of Music

Monday Postcard 142 Austrians and The Sound of Music

Five Academy Awards, USD 2.5 billion*, ranking among the most successful movies of all times. Abroad, Austria is often more famous for “The Sound of Music” than for Mozart. 650,000 overnight stays are booked in the region of Salzburg per year thanks to the movie. But Austrians themselves have rarely watched it. Many do not even know the movie.

When I went to Salzburg as a child and as a teenager, I noticed that there were many American tourists. I always thought because of Mozart, who was born in Salzburg. I only realized what was really going on when I studied in China. A friend of mine from New Zealand got excited when she met me: “Your name is Elisabeth? From Austria? Oh my God, you are like Liesel from Sound of Music!” Sound of Music, it somehow rang a bell, something about Dirndls and Lederhosen. But I actually had no idea what she was talking about.

My friend had a clear mission. An Austrian who had never seen Sound of Music was just impossible. She had to show me her favourite movie. I was shocked. This was why people visit Salzburg?! Because they think we wear Dirndls and sing all the time? I found it kitschy and I thought the music was not as “amazing” as my friend had told me (she kept singing along throughout the movie).

I am not an “uncultured” Austrian who happened not to have seen one of the most successful movies in the world. None of my friends have actually watched it. Most of us only discovered it when we moved abroad. In contrast to America, the UK or Australia, where Sound of Music is one of the Christmas movies, it has rarely been broadcasted on national TV.

Most Austrians have never seen the movie. And if they have, they usually do not like it. Most of us think it is typical of how Hollywood wants to see us – in Dirndl and Lederhosen, maybe even yodelling and if there is a Nazi-element in there, we may even win an Oscar. (Austrians joke that Austrian movies about the Nazi regime are the only ones with a chance to win an Academy Award.)

My research for this Postcard led me to a lot of articles linking the success of the movie to a kind of nostalgia in the US. Americans were longing for some type of kitsch. The Sound of Music came out right at a time of disruption: the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement. Nostalgia in Austria and Germany looked different. The 50s and 60s were the times of the “Heimatfilm” – sentimental movies with regional backgrounds, sometimes about the monarchy, sometimes about current daily life. Maybe you have heard about the “Sissy”-movies with Romy Schneider about the former Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Most of these movies focused on the beauty of the country, they were fairly superficial comedies and perfect to distract from what had happened in the 30s and 40s.

The Austria of the 1950s and 60s did not want to deal with the past. We had been quite successful with not talking about what had happened. It is impossible to change an entire society’s values from one day to the other. The war was over. After 1955, the occupation by the Allies was over as well. But Austrians preferred not to be reminded of the fact they had been part of “it”. There is a saying that one of the biggest successes of Austria was that we made Hitler German and Beethoven Austrian. And until the late 1980s when Kurt Waldheim ran for president and his SS-past was revealed, nobody really wanted to talk about the crowded Heldenplatz, where many Austrian cheered Hitler on and openly welcomed him. We played the victims for decades since the Moscow Declaration.

Of course, Americans like to base our disliking the movie on “that moment near the end, clearly designed to remind Austrian audiences of the worst moment of their 20th-century past: a giant swastika rises up in the middle of the stage.” (The New York Times about the 2005 premiere of The Sound of Music at the Viennese Volksoper). Maybe this was the case in the 1950s or 1960s. In today’s Austria, I do not think that we need the musical to be reminded of or lectured about the past.

It took Austria very long to apologise for its past and to come clean with the victim-image. But since the 80s, a lot has changed. At school, we have mandatory trips to the concentration camp Mauthausen, we read books, there are countless memorials and exhibitions. (For some it may feel that it is a bit too much.) When I was in school, I got to meet people who survived the Holocaust and the war. With the next generations it is becoming increasingly difficult because the witnesses of the pasts are passing away. But this still does not mean we need a kitsch musical to be reminded of it. 

Maybe what may be interpreted as “ignorance” is based on the fact that foreigners love to remind us that Hitler was Austrian. There have been many incidences where I was accused of not apologizing for the Nazi crimes. Abroad we are very often expected to apologise for what happened decades ago. The recent political landscape in Austria also does not make it easier to convince foreigners that “not every Austrian is a Nazi”. And maybe, Austrians just have become tired of Americans telling us off for our past. By no means do I imply that it is not necessary to remember. I also do think that Austria still has a long way to go – especially in the field of art restitution. And that the danger of dictatorial regimes and populists is not a thing of the past. But America has long played the role as the great winner of the war lecturing everyone else. Maybe people were a bit tired of it?

Apart from a possible historic reason, there may be other factors – of cultural nature or just based on personal taste and preferences – why the American movie never became as popular as in other countries.

The Trapp family story itself was quite popular in Austria as well. There were two movies „Die Trapp-Familie“ (1956) and „Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika“ (1958) which were major milestones of the aforementioned Heimatfilm era. The actors were the incredibly talented and famous Josef Meinrad, Hans Holt and Ruth Leuwerik. Maybe people thought our own version of the story was better or more realistic?

Many Austrians consider the music of the Hollywood version an insult – could you blame a country which is frequently referred to as the capital of classical music? When the musical aired on Broadway in 1959, also the American critics were not really fond of the soundtrack. But obviously, the people did not care. Most of my English-speaking friends love the music and know the songs by heart. For them, it is the soundtrack of their childhood. They are shocked when I tell them I do not know any of the songs by heart.

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There is a rumour that former president Reagan considered the “Edelweiss”-song as the Austrian national anthem. According to press reports, Austrian president Rudolf Kirchschläger came to visit the American president in 1984. When he and his delegation entered, the Sound of Music soundtrack was played – Reagan and the American delegation are said to have sung along while the Austrians watched them in confusion.

If you dig deeper into the story of the Hollywood movie, there are quite a few geographic and historic flaws. After the singing competition in Salzburg, the Trapp family flees to America directly via Switzerland – which obviously does not share any border with Salzburg. In reality, the family made their way out via Italy. Franz Wasner, a theologist who accompanied the Trapps until the US and who arranged most of the 150 Trapp songs is not even mentioned in the movie. Neither is the fact that the Trapps were quite popular in the “Ständestaat”, a dictatorship in Austria from 1933-1938. For the latter, we cannot really blame Hollywood. Until today, the conservatives do not like to talk about that part of their history or even call it a dictatorship. Many Austrians, and consequently, foreigners are not aware about the four years before the Nazi regime.

I mentioned above that Austrians are very good at selling you our version of the truth. Similar to our version of Hitler and Mozart, the most famous filming locations – the first scene with scenic mountain views to “The Hills are aliiiive” is missing in most “Sound of Music Tours” in Salzburg. Why? Because those were filmed in Bavaria, on the Mehlweg near Marktschellenberg. But the Austrians obviously were faster to recognize the tourism value of the movie and conveniently leave the fact out of the tour. Tourists are taken to filming locations above St. Gilgen – and it is a well-kept secret that they would need to head over to Germany to experience the intro scene.

Whether we like the movie or not, the Sound of Music has been a major driver for tourism in Austria. Considering how popular the movie still is abroad, it will stay that way in the future. When I went to Salzburg and Werfen last week, it was obvious how much foreigners contribute to our tourism industry. The filming location in Werfen – where the picnic scene and “Do-Re-Mi”-song were filmed – was completely empty. I was all on my own. Because due to Covid-19, tourists from America and Asia cannot enter the country at the moment.

I have not been – and will never be – a big fan of the movie. But I have to admit, the scenery on the “Sound of Music Trail” in Werfen was stunning. Maybe I even felt a little urge to dance and sing. Maybe one day, you can convince that “The Sound of Music” is not that bad after all…


* adjusted for inflation

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