Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays

Issue 10 – 2022 (2)

Maria’s Maria

Maria Hofmann (University of Minnesota)

How to cite this article: Hofmann, M. (2022) Maria’s Marias. Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays, 10, 2022(2). ISSN: 2659-4269

For many non-Austrians, The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965) is the epitome of Austrian culture while most Austrians have never even heard of the film or the musical. Furthermore, not many people on either side of the Atlantic know that the musical and the film are adaptations of the German feature Die Trapp-Familie (Wolfgang Liebeneier, 1956), itself an adaptation of Maria von Trapp’s memoir, despite its success and popularity at its release. In early post-war years, women represented the majority of the population with more economic power and German-speaking films often centered on strong independent women. Yet, male yearning for a pre-war gender dynamic soon called for a cinema satisfying the nation’s desire for harmony, compromise, and stability, at the expense of women’s progress (Fritsche, 2013: 44).

Die Trapp-Familie represents a paradigmatic example of the resulting escapist Heimatfilm genre of the 1950s that avoids topics of sexuality, violence, and war, and instead focuses on a romanticized depiction of the nuclear family and bourgeois values: The singing family gathered around an embodiment of dedicated motherhood resisting the Nazis, all set in a beautiful landscape. The plot employs the myth of a victimized Austria rejecting any accountability for World War II and the Holocaust and feeds into the national agenda of compromise and reconciliation promising stability and prosperity in Austrian postwar society (Lamb-Faffelberger, 2003: 295). Die Trapp-Familie supports the formulation of nationhood in opposition to Germany’s masculine aggression emphasizing femininity that, according to Fritsche, leans into preconceptions of Austrians as peace-loving, harmonious, and passive (2013: 47). The Sound of Music‘s popularity seems to have contributed to the ongoing prevalence of this particular idea of Austrian culture.

Starting out with an introduction inspired by kogonada’s What is Neorealism? (2013), this audiovisual essay provocatively proposes the experiment of revealing the essence of Austrian culture by using a multiscreen format to highlight the narrative, cultural, and cinematographic similarities and differences between Die Trapp-Familieand The Sound of Music. While both versions share a number of surprisingly similar scenes, cultural variations become apparent quickly; the scene of von Trapp summoning his children with a whistle is present in both films, for instance; yet, the exaggeration in the American version works like a caricature of Prussian military culture. The greatest deviation is found in the films’ last thirds, revealing national interests far more than narrative plausibility. In the German version, the family arrives in the US waiting to be admitted and to embark on the American dream, while the American film offers a suspenseful escape from the Nazis culminating in an idyllic hike over the mountains (that would actually have led to Germany). These narrative differences are underscored by the cultural contexts of the films’ production and distribution. While The Sound of Music employed many of the aspects that made the Heimatfilm successful, it flopped on its release in Austria and Germany despite the general popularity of Hollywood films during that time. Starkman argues that The Sound of Music not only represents the perspective of World War II’s conquering victor but also projects Cold War America with its desire for authentic traditions and resilience against invaders onto Austria, effectively displacing Austrians from the imagery of their national home (2000: 69). In Maria’s Marias, some of this context is addressed by found-footage audio material from news reports, interviews with von Trapp’s children, and statements by Austrians as well as fans of The Sound of Music that supplements the visual comparison.

This video essay further highlights the intertextual relationship between the Marias (including the original real person) and challenges their portrayal as the pure woman devoid of desires outside of marriage and motherhood. Maria as the icon of maternity is all the more pronounced because she actively chooses her role as stepmother out of love for her non-biological children. In direct comparison, her transition from one prison (the abbey) to the next (the mansion and, finally, marriage) becomes apparent visually, alluding to the bourgeois gender expectations of the time as well as challenging their ongoing romanticization. While contrasting the narrativization of Maria von Trapp’s life with reports from contemporaries reveals the complexity of her character lost in the films, I aim to reconcile and simultaneously liberate the different embodiments of Marias beyond images, sound, and time. This includes the insertion of myself as another Maria that grew up near the German-Austrian border and had never heard of The Sound of Music or the mythos of the Trapp family before coming to the US.

Finally, does this video essay’s experiment succeed in revealing the essence of Austrian culture? While neither film is actually Austrian and both construct idyllic non-places that only allude to an ‘authentic’ Austria, their cultural significance for the construction of Austria’s national identity from the outside as well as from within remains substantial. Having capitalized on The Sound of Music‘s tourism since the 1970s, Austrians have “visitors [from abroad] buy, consume, and realize Austrian national space, and Austrians use this realization as points of orientation for their national self-image” (Graml, 2004: 151). The cropped frames of both films underscore the incomplete and ambiguous image of Austrian culture they convey as well as the insufficient and distorted representation of Maria von Trapp; their final collapse at the end of Maria’s Marias further complicates their relationship and favors a multilayered and complex amalgamation over reductive simplification.


  • Fritsche, Maria (2013). Homemade Men in Postwar Austrian Cinema: Nationhood, Genre and Masculinity. Berghahn Books. 
  • Graml, Gundolf (2004). “(Re)mapping the nation. Sound of Music tourism and national identity in Austria, ca 2000 CE.” Tourist Studies, vol 4(1), 137–159.
  • Lamb-Faffelberger, Margarete (2003). “Beyond The Sound of Music: The Quest for Cultural Identity in Modern Austria.” The German Quarterly, Vol. 76, No. 3, 289- 299.
  • Rathkolb, Oliver (2005). Die paradoxe Republik: Österreich 1945 bis 2005. Zsolnay.
  • Starkman, Ruth A. (2000). “American Imperialism or Local Protectionism? The Sound of Music (1965) fails in Germany and Austria.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 20:1, 63-78.


  • Die Trapp-Familie (Wolfgang Liebeneiner, 1956).
  • The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965).

Other videoessays in this issue

Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays
ISSN: 2659-4269
© Tecmerin Research Group
Universidad Carlos III de Madrid