With Christmas around the corner, we find ourselves deep in the season of sentimental, family-friendly movies playing repeatedly on television. The Sound of Music has become a staple of this season, and though it feels peculiar that a film largely set during the summer became such a Christmas-specific classic, its presence at this time of year speaks to its cultural reputation: a sanitized portrait of the rise of Nazism, set to inoffensive, schmaltzy music. It’s “cute” and “sweet” and has no business being any of that.
This reputation isn’t wrong, exactly. But I think it misses the point.
The Sound of Music isn’t a Christmas movie for me, but it has been an important part of my life since childhood. When I was growing up, my favorite movies were the long ones that took up two VHS tapes each — movies like The Sound of Music, Anne of Green Gables, and Fiddler on the Roof. I don’t remember what my attention span was like at that age, if I was usually able to watch them in one sitting or if I broke them up into several, but these were the movies I always wanted to watch repeatedly. At the time, I’m not sure I could have told you exactly why I gravitated toward these films, except that I enjoyed the stories they were telling. But in hindsight, I understand that what appealed to me was having long stretches of time to get lost in a world that wasn’t my own. There were certainly parts of these stories that I related to; they tended to feature creative and strong-willed women and girls who didn’t necessarily fit in with everyone else around them. But I wasn’t looking for a mirror of my own life. I was looking for the comfort of escapism from my life.
If you’ve never seen The Sound of Music, here is the basic gist: Maria (Julie Andrews) is a postulant at a convent in Austria during the 1930s. She repeatedly violates the codes of conduct she has agreed to in order to become a nun, so she is sent away to work for widower Captain Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) as a governess for his seven children. Immediately, Maria senses that Georg’s strict parenting protocols aren’t actually helping the children develop in emotionally healthy ways, so while he is away from home, she teaches them how to let go and express themselves, primarily through music. A love triangle and some Nazis show up to complicate matters, but it is Maria’s commitment to the children that leads her and Georg to fall in love and eventually marry.
That last bit is actually a lot more complex than it sounds. Maria is so in denial about her own feelings toward Georg (and his feelings towards her) that when they are brought to her attention, she leaves the von Trapp home and returns to the convent. The idea of falling in love with someone — especially someone who might reciprocate her feelings — is too much for her to accept. She shares her deep shame and discomfort with the Mother Superior (Peggy Wood), who reminds her that the convent is not a permanent solution for all that she wishes to avoid. “These walls were not built to shut out problems,” she tells Maria, encouraging her to leave the convent for a second time, permanently. “You have to face them.” So Maria returns to the von Trapp home, and later that night, after Georg breaks off his engagement to someone else, they express their love to each other for the first time. It’s a cathartic moment that feels like it should have come much earlier in the film, but deep down, we understand that Maria needed to feel the comfort of escapism before she could find the strength to acknowledge her feelings.
This section of the The Sound of Music plays as a simple conflict that is quickly overcome, but there’s a lot more happening under the surface, and for me, it is the key to unlocking the film as a whole. It’s hard to see initially, because the film does not tell us much about Maria’s life before she comes to the von Trapp house. There are hints, here and there, that she had an abusive (or, at least, very difficult) childhood. She tells the Mother Superior that as a child, she would watch the nuns in their garden and dream of living with them someday. And through the lyrics to “Something Good,” the Maria/Georg love song written for the film (which has since been incorporated into revivals of the stage musical), she reveals that her upbringing was miserable and led her to feel unworthy of love. But we aren’t given any specifics about this background, and the movie doesn’t dwell on it. I’m not sure how much those details stand out until you rewatch the film through adult eyes.
Growing up, I felt a particular attachment to Maria. I felt drawn to her to the extent that I, too, wanted to become a nun, leading my mother to explain to me that this isn’t really a life path for Jewish girls. (Then again, perhaps it was the knowledge that I shouldn’t become a nun that led to my initial feelings of identification with Maria.) Just as I don’t think I could have articulated my desire to escape into The Sound of Music as a child, I don’t think I could have expressed my interest in Maria back then, other than the fact that I thought that she seemed like a nice, fun person.
But rewatching the movie in adulthood, I see Maria as someone committed to saving other children from the harm she faced at their age. I see someone who has been shaped by her own trauma and channels it toward helping others, while still needing help to break out of her protective shell and face the things that truly scare her. I see someone who needs escapism and safety and who wonders if love is actually safe at all. I see all of this, and my childhood attachment to her, and the film as a whole, starts to make sense.
The Sound of Music is misleadingly cheerful. Its emphasis is on hope and optimism and singing the frightening things away, implying undercurrents of fear and trauma which are brought up just often enough to remind you that they exist but infrequently enough to preserve its wholesome essence. The film does an excellent job of examining cheerfulness as a coping mechanism, of depicting the lure of escapism and the reasons it isn’t a lasting solution. The Sound of Music is a beautiful film to get lost in. And when you leave it, hopefully you will have learned both the value of escapism and the reality that it isn’t a solution.