As a break from writing about Nelson Mandela and his cultural legacy last night, I tuned into NBC’s live broadcast of The Sound Of Music, starring Carrie Underwood as novice-nun-turned-governess-turned-wife Maria, and Stephen Moyer, better known as True Blood‘s Vampire Bill, as Captain Von Trapp. The broadcast pulled 18.5 million viewers, making it a bona fide hit for NBC. There were some high points in the broadcast, including Audra McDonald’s turn as the Mother Abess, which made up for some of Underwood’s stiff earnestness, and the general lack of chemistry between Underwood and Moyer (which, to be fair, is in keeping with the original). As Slate’s Willa Paskin pointed out, “How trusting—though, sure, there are other words—to bet on the viewing public’s better angels, their ability to look past the flaws in the age of Twitter. How very Maria-like!” But for the most part, watching the production mostly reminded me of how The Sound Of Music tends to shrink in the imagination.
The Sound Of Music is an easy movie to mock. As I explained on Twitter last night, “True confession: as a small child, Sound Of Music had me convinced that to find a husband and a job, I would have to do a stint as a nun.” There’s the fantastic Melinda Taub piece in McSweeney’s, “I REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT MY WEDDING TO CAPTAIN VON TRAPP HAS BEEN CANCELED,” in which the poor, overthrown Baroness is force to explain to “friends, family, and Austrian nobility,” that she’s been suddenly cast aside in favor of a suddenly-reappeared governess, and points out a number of other sillinesses in the process. “Since I will no longer be a part of their lives, I do hope you will all keep an eye on the Captain’s children,” she urges her correspondents. “I had planned to send them to boarding school, since their education at the moment seems to consist mostly of marching around Salzburg singing scales. I think it would have been particularly helpful for the eldest daughter, who seems intent on losing her virginity to the mailman.”
But The Sound Of Music has endured because its sentimentality is largely effective, and because it’s what I think of as something of a gateway Holocaust story. The characters in The Sound Of Music are Austro-Hungarian and Catholic. There’s nobody in the story who’s Jewish, or a member of any of the other groups who came under Nazi scrutiny, like Roma or homosexuals. The Nazi party’s offenses against the Von Trapp family are, in the text of the musical, relatively slight, and they’re personal and political, rather than violent. Captain Von Trapp and the Baroness argue over whether or not the Anschluss is inevitable. Party officials want the Von Trapps to fly a Nazi flag. The Von Trapp children’s planned performance at the Kaltzberg Festival is politicized by the absorption of Austria by Germany, and Captain Von Trapp uses music as an act of resistance at the conclusion of the festival. The most substantive threat to the family is Captain Von Trapp’s effective conscription into the Nazi Navy, and the threat of being transported immediately to his command is what prompts the family’s flight over the mountains. In NBC’s adaptation of the piece, though, an exceptionally heavy dose of swastika iconography tended to substitute for any acting that particularly emphasized the physical risk to Captain Von Trapp, or the consequences the family might face during his military service if they seemed to be insufficiently supportive of the regime.
None of this is to say that art can’t be an important political tool, or that the idea of being conscripted into the Nazi Navy isn’t genuinely terrifying, especially given the way the battle for the Atlantic played out. But in The Sound Of Music, the Nazis are mean more than they’re genocidal. And their effect is generalized, rather than targeted.
There’s nothing wrong with pointing out that the Nazi rule of Germany did an incredible range of harm to a huge variety of people. But those impacts were absolutely disparate. And one of the reasons we tell Holocaust stories is to exercise our moral imaginations, maintaining the muscles that allow us to avoid the political attenuation that Pastor Martin Niemöller, a dissident against Hitler’s regime, described in his famous description of the progression of Nazi repression: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.” Solidarity with people who are not like us may turn out to be in our own best interests. But we shouldn’t necessarily need self-interest as an imperative to act.
A movie like The Sound Of Music can help make the point that everyone feels the effects of a totalitarian regime like Nazism to viewers who are being introduced to the history of the Third Reich for the first time. But the more you know about that period, the more precious and sticky-sweet the story feels. The Alps the Von Trapps flee across start to feel like a hill of beans.