Their (Least) Favourite Thing

The film that defines Austria in the U.S. is mostly lost-in-translation to natives

Opinion | Janima Nam | July / August 2013

On my Austrian husband’s first holiday in the U.S., my whole family was there, and in an annual ritual, we all sat down in front of the TV and put on The Sound of Music. As scenic views of Julie Andrews cavorting through the Alps rolled out before us, my sister exclaimed to her children, "This is where Uncle Kilian is from! Look how beautiful!" My husband had never seen the film. He sat among us in silence as we all sang gleefully along to "Do, Re, Mi".

Halfway through the film, the screen went black. The DVD was defective. We all mourned my poor husband’s loss. The only thing he could say was, "Thank God."

Up until that visit, my husband had never heard any of the songs from The Sound of Music – except as jazz standards (John Coltrane has a groovy 14-minute version of "My Favorite Things"). When he first told me this, I was in disbelief. But he’s not alone. Most Austrians have never seen the film. Those who do, learned about it from living abroad, where strangers waxed lyrical about their favorite "Austrian" thing – The Sound of Music.

The Sound of Music is the best known, and often the only, thing non-Austrians know about Austria. Except the Germans, who also don’t know it. Every year, thousands of tourists flock to Salzburg to relive every scene in the film, which was shot there on location. Shortly after its release in 1965, it displaced Gone with the Wind as the highest-grossing film of all time. The Sound of Music sing-along screenings are so popular they have sold out arenas all over the world and still occur on a regular basis.

The Sound of Music appeared on Austrian TV for the first time in 2001. It’s a popular rumor that the film was never dubbed in German, but a dubbed version did come out in Austria (heavily censored) after its U.S. release and was an instant flop. When the Volksoper finally produced the first version of the stage musical in Austria (translated into German) in 2005, a former Chancellor of Austria who attended the premiere finally figured out why Americans had always been pestering him about some song called "Edelweiss". Ronald Reagan, a huge fan, thought it was their national anthem.

Reasons for Austrians’ disdain have certainly been proposed. Some find it cheesy, kitschy, schmaltzy (the last two terms are German imports, and equally negative in English). Even Robert Wise, the film’s director, initially turned down the job because he found the project "too saccharine". Then there are the Austrians who refuse to acknowledge that musical theatre qualifies for their attention, although directly descended from Viennese operetta.

And there’s that pesky historical ambivalence: After the premiere of the stage musical in Vienna, Helga Rabl-Stadler, the president of the Salzburg Festival, told The New York Times that Austrians are divided between those who ignore the past and those who want to talk about it. When a friend actually met Maria von Trapp back in the ‘80s in Vermont, she confirmed that these "ignorers" were the reason why the film was unpopular in Austria.

Others complain of stereotypes. Let’s see: a love of nature, a passion for music and a nice helping of Catholic guilt? I might not have been singing when I was standing by that tree in the woods in Carinthia, but now I can’t go on our family hikes without "Climb Ev’ry Mountain" playing in my head.

But ultimately what truly mystifies me is not so much the distaste, but the utter lack of interest that Austrians hold for this film phenomenon that people gush over when they venture abroad. Isn’t it only natural to be curious about the one and only thing that the rest of the world knows about you? If we commit the sin of reading someone else’s diary, don’t we pore through it to find that one line about us? Most of us want to know what people think of us, or so I thought.

Teaching English recently, I was asked to translate unsicher, "unsure" or "insecure"? I explained that the former means "uncertain" while the latter means "lacking confidence." "We don’t have a word for ‘insecure’," my student replied. Thus the song, "I Have Confidence in Me" is not in the German-language Volksoper stage version. Perhaps it was a translation issue.


Janima Nam is a freelance journalist, translator, and editor living in Vienna. She has a BFA in Film from New York University and a Masters Degree (MA) from the London Consortium in Interdisciplinary Studies.


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