Salzburg in Austria! It’s the city of music: home of Mozart and the world famous Salzburg Festival. Yet be prepared to sigh, for as any musician visitor to Salzburg soon discovers, that pales into insignificance alongside the other draw of the place. The city and its surroundings are namely the place where the Sound of Music was filmed. Millions come each year not to pay homage to Mozart’s birthplace, or to see the place he wrote his sublime Piano Concerto No 9… but primarily because of Julie Andrews and a sugar sweet movie that is 50 years old in 2015 and is the most successful musical ever made.
So without much more ado, let’s consider 8 things that you possibly never knew about the movie and the true story behind it.
1. Most Austrians are completely baffled by the enduring interest movie. Mention it to anyone outside Salzburg and they will probably never have heard of it (unless they have close Anglo-Saxon friends) . The same goes for neighboring Germany. Within Salzburg you can’t but have helped hear of it because of all the tourists, but generally it isn’t at all to Austrian tastes. It’s considered a little bit kitsch and schmaltzy and besides, what Austrian would ever eat schnitzel with noodles?!
2. It’s based on a true story, but almost every detail about the family is wrong. The Baron was actually a “Ritter” (akin to a knight or baronet), though the use of noble titles was illegal in Austria after 1919. They weren’t even allowed to use the “von” in their name so he would simply have been addressed as Herr Trapp, not Baron von Trapp. The Trapps married in 1927, over a decade before the events in the movie took place and already had 2 of their eventual 3 children together. In the end there were 10 Trapp children in total, not 7, and the eldest was a boy, not a girl.
3. The real life Maria von Trapp is a controversial character. She carries the distinction of having been born aboard a train traveling through the Austrian countryside. She was an orphan aged 7. Many of her records have vanished and little is known about her life other than what she recorded in a book about the family, that formed the rough basis for the musical. There are stories that she was extremely strict and controlling, and in fact it was her husband who was the indulgent, soft-hearted character, which is quite the opposite of the movie. There’s no question she wasn’t the best business woman: she sold the rights to her family’s story in a bad deal that led the family to only receive a miniscule fraction of the profits of the eventual movie.
4. If you know Salzburg, you will find the movie most entertaining for non-intentional reasons. One moment the family is on one side of town singing, the next they turn a corner and they are 2 miles away. It was “cut and pasted” in all sorts of locations, not just in the city. The wedding church is at Mondsee, some 28km away. The family villa is actually in 3 different sites: the house is in one place, the gardens and lake belong to another property, and the interior scenes were all filmed in Hollywood. Therefore when Maria is talking to Georg, one always has their back to the house, and another to the lake. You never see both in the same shot because they were miles apart. That’s really very clever for the time. To top it all, the actual Trapp villa is in a 4th location and doesn’t feature at all in the movie.
5. Reactions to filming the movie were quite mixed in Salzburg. The Nuns of Nonntal for example wouldn’t allow filming inside their Abbey, though they couldn’t stop the cameras filming outside. The American actresses caused a minor scandal by sitting on walls smoking cigarettes, dressed up in their nuns’ habits. The 5 star Österreichischer Hof Hotel (now the Sacher Hotel) was booked out for weeks on end for the many actors and crew: only Christopher Plummer stayed in the neighbouring Hotel Bristol. He said he didn’t mind the noise the child actors made, but he wanted quiet from their mothers! The city was steadfastly opposed to Nazi flags being draped from buildings and to actors in German uniforms crossing the main square (WW2 had ended just 20 years before). The producers therefore announced that they would instead use actual footage of the Anschluss, with the hysterically enthusiastic Austrian crowds greeting their Nazi “liberators” and faces readily recognizable in the crowd. Suddenly, permission was granted to film.
6. The most serious objection to the movie relates to the element just touched on. It was a complete historical whitewash of Austria’s complicity in the 3rd Reich. The Austrians are shown as being opposed to annexation by Germany, when their enthusiasm and spontaneous displays of anti-Semitism took Berlin by complete surprise. Austrians took a leading part in the execution of the Holocaust and in the crimes of the regime. Then after the War, many sought simply to forget about the past, to only look forward and to maintain the myth that Austria was the first victim of Nazi aggression. The Sound of Music feeds into and reinforces this falsehood.
7. That final scene in particular is complete nonsense. Singing “Climb Every Mountain” the family walks across the border into Switzerland. Any idea how far Salzburg actually is from there? 350km. The scene actually depicts them crossing the Untersberg, which leads straight to Germany and to Hitler’s mountain hideout, the Eagle’s Nest. It’s not the place you’d necessarily go to escape the Nazis. In real life, the family certainly did not flee the regime on foot in the middle of the night. Although genuinely not pro-Nazi, Captain von Trapp did consider taking up a commission in the German navy for a some time (the family was penniless). He decided against this, and the family eventually left by taking a train to Italy, then a boat to the US. They then later voluntarily returned to Nazi Austria in 1939 to tie up their affairs. They would not have done so if they were in danger of arrest.
8. The movie was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. This was because, despite everything, it was deemed to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. For all its faults the Sound of Music was an undeniable massive success, and is beloved by millions in the English speaking world. It briefly knocked Gone with the Wind of its top spot for highest grossing US movie ever, and still resides in position 3 of most successful American movies. It cost $8 million to make and has taken in $286 million: it quite literally saved 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy. The soundtrack was even included in Britain’s underground stockpile of records intended for radio broadcast to boost public morale for 100 days after Soviet nuclear attack. The feel good innocence of the film, the enduring “catchiness” of its songs and its sheer entertainment value mean it will no doubt continue to have a special place in people’s hearts for the next 50 years to come.