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Austria and The Sound of Music: Where the Hills Are Alive

Long before I came to the United States from Graz, a relatively small town in Southern Austria and birth place of, among others, one Arnold Schwarzenegger, I was fully aware that I would get confronted with The Sound of Music. I’ve prepared myself. I’ve been on this side of the world twice before, and it really does seem as if this little movie haunts me and my country. It is, indeed, a difficult relationship we have with it.

And why is that?

A common misconception Austrians abroad get confronted with regularly (especially, for some reason, in the United States): The Sound of Music is an adequate and culturally sound depiction of life in Austria. This is exactly what Austrians look like, this exactly what they wear – this film is 100% authentic, down to the British accent that is prevalent in the whole country.

But is that really true?

We Austrians wouldn’t know. We’ve never seen the movie. Try to walk up to a random Austrian person and get them to chant “Edelweiss” (or, if you prefer the correct German spelling, “Edelweiß”) from the top of their lungs – they’d just stand there awkwardly, completely clueless, severely doubting your mental sanity. It’s most certainly not a traditional folk standard in Austria. We’ve never heard of that song. Or any of the other songs in the movie, for that matter. We may be familiar with its title and its cult following – thanks to the many times we’ve had to shake our heads in defeat when being asked “Oh my God, you’re from Austria? Do you know The Sound of Music?”. But still, somehow, none of us seem to manage to find three little hours of time to actually watch the movie.

If you go to Salzburg – the neat little town situated in the approximate center of Austria where The Sound of Music was set and shot, and birth place of personalities such as composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Felix Baumgartner (You know, the guy who jumped out of a rocket or something a couple of years ago. No? Well, never mind.) – you can go on special Sound of Music tours there. You can go by bus or you can simply walk, and visit all the places you know and love from the movie. You can do all that, but be aware of the fact that you will be severely ridiculed by the locals of Salzburg. They will, for one, instantly know you’re a tourist, for no Austrian in their right mind would ever even consider taking one of these tours. But – and this is even worse – you are thereby outing yourself as one of those tourists who actually take the movie seriously and are convinced that this is part of the “Austrian experience”, whatever that means.

To get one thing straight: Yes, I am one of the maybe 5% of all Austrians who have seen the movie and are able to join in a conversation about it. But in our defense; The Sound of Music was, in fact, banned in Austria until the late 1980s. Apparently, it displayed the country in a bad light, making it necessary to spare the public this outrage. And if Austria decides to ban something, you better believe there’s something seriously wrong with it.

So, in other words; the rest of the world has had a 20 year head start when it comes to The Sound of Music. By then, we were just too annoyed with people asking us about it and expecting to see us prancing around our beautiful green mountain meadows in our traditional Austrian clothing to just accept the fact that, by the time we had the possibility to watch it, things had changed in Austria. What may have seemed like a pretty and sentimental restoration of Austrian life and culture pre-WWII when the movie came out in 1965 looked awfully tacky and awkward in the 80s (which is only logical, since, of course, the 80s were anything but tacky and awkward).

It seems that, once we saw how our country was being perceived, especially in the US, we refused to acknowledge that this picture was in any way realistic. We were, and still are, much too fascinated with our glorious past, when we were a force to be reckoned with, with powerful empresses and weirdly-bearded emperors, instead of a small schnitzel-shaped country in Central Europe whose main achievement in recent years has been the victory in the men’s foosball world championship in 2013. But we failed to realize that, at the end of the day, it’s a musical, so of course it was romanticized. That’s what the musical does; it romanticizes places, people and events, and that’s what people expect when they go see a musical. It’s not realistic. But that’s what Austrians demanded of The Sound of Music, and it’s what they still demand of it today.

But – and it slightly pains me to write this – it’s much more realistic than we like to admit. And maybe that’s the reason why we refuse to deal with it; we are tacky and awkward.

No, we don’t spend our days singing songs and being at one with nature.
No, we don’t wear traditional Austrian clothing like Maria and the von Trapp family all the time.
No, we don’t have a posh British accent; a frightfully large number of us have a hard time speaking English (or, as Germans will tell you, German) in the first place.

But yes, we are a happy and joyful people, and we love our mountains, our forests and our meadows dearly. We don’t express this joy by singing, but you might catch us skiing or hiking; after all, we do feel the desperate urge to be at one with nature sometimes.

And yes, even though we have long since stopped wearing Dirndl or Lederhosen on a daily basis, we keep making excuses to wear them at special events, usually involving excessive consumption of alcohol. Also, if you get the chance, take a look at our old family pictures, and you will see for yourself that the appearance of the characters in The Sound of Music is actually not far-fetched at all.

So I, unlike many of my compatriots, have no problem whatsoever with Austria being associated with the magnificent Sound of Music. There are much worse things to be associated with, as Germans, our neighbors to the North, will be able to tell you. To be on the safe side, though, try not to mention it too often if you ever go to Austria. And if you do, be sure to do so in a mildly derisive tone until you’re sure about that particular Austrian person’s stance on it. Not everybody there embraces “tacky and awkward”; but those who do will never roll their eyes when you start singing “Edelweiss” at inappropriate times. They might not join in, as much as they want to, since in Austria, displaying familiarity with it in public is still punishable by having your citizenship revoked.

But they will never roll their eyes.

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